“There is no attack on American culture more destructive and more historically dishonest than the secular Left’s relentless effort to drive God out of America’s public square.” So writes former Speaker of the House, and possible Republican presidential candidate, Newt Gingrich, in his powerful new book, Rediscovering God in America — a brief but persuasive rebuttal to those who would erase all mention of God and religion from public life in the United States. I highly recommend the book to religious and non-religious people alike, who are interested in learning more about the central role played by religion in American history.
Rediscovering God begins with an introductory essay in which Gingrich lays out his case that American history and culture cannot be understood without an appreciation for the nation’s distinctly religious character and heritage. Gingrich emphasizes the oft-forgotten points that many early Americans came to this country seeking religious freedom and that the religious revival known as the First Great Awakening (1730s to 1770s) directly influenced the independence movement that led to the American Revolution. Gingrich then quotes numerous Founding Fathers, including George Washington, John Adams, and Alexander Hamilton, who all believed that a republican form of government could not succeed without (in Adams’ words) “a moral and religious people.” While contemporary scholars have attempted to portray the Founding Fathers, especially Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin, as skeptics and/or atheists, in just a few short pages Gingrich demonstrates that projecting such modern attitudes onto these men, let alone onto the American people as a whole, is “historically dishonest.”
Following the introduction, Gingrich organizes his book around a “walking tour” of the most important monuments, buildings, and landmarks in Washington, D.C. He starts at the National Archives, where the Declaration of Independence and Constitution are housed. He then moves on to the Washington Monument, the Jefferson, Lincoln, and Roosevelt Memorials, the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, the Capitol and Supreme Court buildings, the White House, the Library of Congress, the Ronald Reagan Building, the World War Two Memorial, and Arlington National Cemetery. Each chapter includes an account of the history of the location; a description of the religious words, symbols, and imagery found there; and a discussion of the role that religion played in the life of the great men and women who are memorialized there. The format of the book is creative, accessible, and compelling.
I most enjoyed the chapters on the Lincoln and Roosevelt Memorials. Lincoln’s deep religiosity is well known, and pervades his public and private acts as President. As Gingrich points out, the Lincoln Memorial reflects our 16th President’s profound faith. Inscribed on the interior walls of the memorial are the Gettysburg Address, in which Lincoln famously proclaimed “that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom,” and Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address, which, Gingrich notes, mentions God fourteen times and quotes the Bible twice. These two great speeches, arguably Lincoln’s most important words as President, say as much about the religious character of the American people, whose commitment to freedom and justice has been inspired from the very beginning by the Old and New Testaments, as they do about Lincoln himself. The radical secularists’ ostrich-like denial of this historical and cultural reality cannot withstand scrutiny.
Unlike the Lincoln Memorial, the memorial for Franklin Delano Roosevelt is noteworthy for its lack of religious content. This is hardly surprising, given that the memorial was designed in 1978 and completed in 1997. In his chapter on the memorial, however, Gingrich convincingly demonstrates, using FDR’s own words, that God and religion were central to FDR’s leadership as President. For someone, like myself, who was educated in the post-1960s era of secular “multiculturalism,” FDR’s words are striking. For example, in a national radio address on May 27, 1941, FDR declared a state of “unlimited national emergency” and described the “Nazi world” as one that “does not recognize any God except Hitler…as ruthless as the Communists in the denial of God…where moral standards are measured by treachery and bribery.” FDR further explained that the world was heading towards a global conflict “between human slavery and human freedom — between pagan brutality and the Christian ideal.” The United States, he declared, would stand on the side of “human freedom — which is the Christian ideal.” In another radio address on October 27, 1941, FDR described the Nazi plan to “abolish all existing religions” and to replace “the cross of Christ” with the swastika and the sword. He concluded with a pledge that “We stand ready in defense of our nation and the faith of our fathers to do what God has given us the power to see as our full duty.” Similarly, on the occasion of the Allied invasion of Normandy in June 1944, FDR led the American people in prayer: “Almighty God, our sons, pride of our nation, this day have set upon a mighty endeavor, a struggle to preserve our republic, our religion, and our civilization, and to set free a suffering humanity.” Again, as with Lincoln, FDR’s words reflect more than merely his own personal beliefs; they reflect the beliefs of the American people — who were inspired by God and their Christian faith to win the most terrible war in human history.
The ignorance, and petulance, of the secular Left can be seen in the Publishers Weekly review of Rediscovering God. (I am not aware that any of the major newspaper has reviewed the book.) The review criticizes the book for its “predictable” and “tired” arguments, which the author of the review finds “essentially unpersuasive.” What can this mean? Does the author question the accuracy of Gingrich’s historical evidence? No. Rather, the author challenges Gingrich’s basic thesis — that God and religion have played a central role in American history and culture — by pointing to, yes, Jefferson and Franklin, and arguing that the Founding Fathers “believed religion should have little, if any, role in the nation’s government.” This is an intentionally ambiguous phrase, because it allows the author the elide the crucial distinction between the Founding Father’s belief that there should be no “established” (i.e., official) church in the nation, and their patent support for religious expression in public life. Indeed, one of the very first acts of Congress was to pass legislation providing for House and Senate chaplains.
But the points raised in the Publishers Weekly review do highlight a few weaknesses in Gingrich’s book. First, Gingrich should have included a chapter on the First Amendment in which he addressed the now-familiar concept of a “wall of separation between church and state.” This phrase, of course, is not found in the First Amendment, but comes from a letter that Jefferson wrote in 1802 to the Baptist Association of Danbury, Connecticut. Moreover, this concept did not become a touchstone of constitutional law until after World War Two, when it was cited by the U.S. Supreme Court in Everson v. Board of Education (1947). There is considerable scholarship demonstrating that neither the phrase nor its usage by the courts faithfully reflects the meaning or intent of the First Amendment, which states, in relevant part, that “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” On any fair reading of history, the First Amendment has been twisted by the courts to serve the secular Left’s political agenda to remove all mention of God and religion, especially Christianity, from public life. In Rediscovering God, Gingrich sharply criticizes the courts for this naked power grab, but he could have done a better job of explaining to his readers the true meaning of the First Amendment and why the very concept of a “wall of separation between church and state” is fallacious.
I also believe that Rediscovering God should have been longer. Although most books about history and politics tend to be too long, with verbose writing, redundant arguments, and unnecessary details, Rediscovering God suffers from just the opposite defect. Gingrich offers several tantalizing examples of the religious beliefs that motivated and sustained men like Washington, Lincoln, Roosevelt, and Reagan (our four most important presidents), but his biographical sketches are much too short and should have been fleshed out with additional personal and historical information. In my opinion, a few more pages devoted to each chapter would have gone a long way toward driving home Gingrich’s message. Additionally, a brief bibliography with suggestions for further reading would have transformed the book from a simple “walking tour” of Washington, D.C., into a gateway for learning about the central role of religion in American history. This was a missed opportunity.
These minor criticisms, however, are not meant to detract from the excellence of Gingrich’s book. Rediscovering God is a marvelous work, grounded in history, marked by a force and clarity of expression, and suffused with patriotism. Sean Hannity is quoted on the jacket cover as saying that the book deepened his own faith. I am not a religious person myself, but I too can say that I found the book to be moving and inspirational. Whatever Gingrich decides to do this fall, he already has done the nation a great service with Rediscovering God in America.
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