FDR’s highly nonsectarian prayer that he read to listening millions on the radio on D-Day 70 years ago is not typically controversial. It was a broad appeal for the Almighty’s protection of America’s sons as they were to face German machine guns on French beaches. It also braced America for the terrible losses that would follow. Men would die, FDR clearly acknowledged without euphemism, and he prayed God would receive their souls.
For several years there have been legislative attempts to add this prayer in some way to the WWII Memorial on the National Mall. Last year, Senator Rob Portman renewed the initiative. Of late, apparently the idea is now rumbling within a U.S. House subcommittee. Who knows when and whether it will ever emerge, much less become law. But the mere possibility of FDR’s prayer at a national monument bestirred an odd coalition into public opposition.
“Our religious diversity is one of our nation’s great strengths,” the protesting coalition declared. “This bill, however, shows a lack of respect for this great diversity. It endorses the false notion that all veterans will be honored by a war memorial that includes a prayer that proponents characterize as reflecting our country’s ‘Judeo-Christian heritage and values.’”
Ostensibly FDR’s prayer on the National Mall will undermine “religious freedom” and “co-opt religion for political purposes, which harms the beliefs of everyone.” The group pleads on behalf of the reputedly nearly one third of current U.S. armed forces who are “non-Christian,” i.e. mostly religiously unaffiliated.
Will the average 20-year-old religiously unaffiliated soldier be offended by FDR’s prayer at a monument honoring his great-grandfather who served in WWII? Not likely. Polls show that most of the much ballyhooed religiously unaffiliated still believe in God and prayer, and many who don’t aren’t necessarily outraged by those who do.
Signers of this protest include several Jewish groups, the American Civil Liberties Union of course, a Hindu group, a Humanist group, a group for mostly liberal Protestants, and the United Methodist Church’s Capitol Hill lobby. They fault language in the legislation, which cites “Judeo-Christian heritage” and the “power of prayer,” words not from FDR. But they interestingly never quote from the ostensibly offending appeal from FDR. It would be clarifying if they had critiqued FDR’s words directly. But perhaps they held back, realizing they’d look silly.
There’s little to nothing in FDR’s prayer that would theologically offend almost any monotheist, except possibly for its very lack of theological specificity. And why would even polytheists or atheists be overly distressed by such a prayer, if in fact they too hoped for encouragement, solace, and victory for those forces, mostly very young men, attempting to liberate Europe from Nazi control and “to set free a suffering humanity?”
FDR was a believing Episcopalian, an active churchman who took his faith seriously but, like most politicians, was not overly interested in theological abstractions. He was expert in the priestcraft of civil religion, which from the very start of America has creatively allowed the constructive integration of faith into public life in very inclusive ways that often inspire spiritual and moral uplift. The alternative to such civil religion is either a more restrictive theocracy or a sterile secular regime that suppresses religious expression.
Such a regime in extreme version was, in FDR’s words, the “unholy forces of our enemy” whom the Allied forces opposed on D-Day. They and other totalitarians deny any transcendent authority over the all-controlling state. For them, not only is there no religious freedom, there is no moral architecture for human rights at all. The will to power supersedes all morality and notions of human dignity.
In contrast, the cosmology of FDR’s prayer asserts by direct implication the dignity of all people, made in God’s image, having souls that outlast the state, belonging to an Authority greater than the state, and meriting protection from the abuses of an unrestrained state, while receiving unmerited protection from the Almighty. This cosmology is reflected in all the great monuments on the National Mall and throughout the federal capital. Its assertions are the cradle of our freedom under law and the ultimate explanation for the irreconcilable conflict between the D-Day invaders and the occupiers whose sinister and genocidal cosmology was so very different.
And besides, whether everyone likes it or not, FDR did say the prayer. It is intrinsically part of what the WWII Memorial represents. His prayer is considerably less provocative than Abraham Lincoln’s Calvinist suggestion, inscribed on his nearby monument, that the Civil War was divine punishment for slavery.
Opposing FDR’s prayer at the WWII Memorial, if not outright misanthropic, is supercilious. Here are the offending words of what was perhaps the most widely heard prayer in history. They are an appropriate remembrance for all who served and died 70 years ago:
Last night, when I spoke with you about the fall of Rome, I knew at that moment that troops of the United States and our Allies were crossing the Channel in another and greater operation. It has come to pass with success thus far.
And so, in this poignant hour, I ask you to join with me 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.
Lead them straight and true; give strength to their arms, stoutness to their hearts, steadfastness in their faith.
They will need Thy blessings. Their road will be long and hard. For the enemy is strong. He may hurl back our forces. Success may not come with rushing speed, but we shall return again and again; and we know that by Thy grace, and by the righteousness of our cause, our sons will triumph.
They will be sore tried, by night and by day, without rest — until the victory is won. The darkness will be rent by noise and flame. Men’s souls will be shaken with the violences of war.
For these men are lately drawn from the ways of peace. They fight not for the lust of conquest. They fight to end conquest. They fight to liberate. They fight to let justice arise, and tolerance and goodwill among all Thy people. They yearn but for the end of battle, for their return to the haven of home.
Some will never return. Embrace these, Father, and receive them, Thy heroic servants, into Thy kingdom.
And for us at home — fathers, mothers, children, wives, sisters, and brothers of brave men overseas, whose thoughts and prayers are ever with them — help us, Almighty God, to rededicate ourselves in renewed faith in Thee in this hour of great sacrifice.
Many people have urged that I call the nation into a single day of special prayer. But because the road is long and the desire is great, I ask that our people devote themselves in a continuance of prayer. As we rise to each new day, and again when each day is spent, let words of prayer be on our lips, invoking Thy help to our efforts.
Give us strength, too — strength in our daily tasks, to redouble the contributions we make in the physical and the material support of our armed forces.
And let our hearts be stout, to wait out the long travail, to bear sorrows that may come, to impart our courage unto our sons wheresoever they may be.
And, O Lord, give us faith. Give us faith in Thee; faith in our sons; faith in each other; faith in our united crusade. Let not the keenness of our spirit ever be dulled. Let not the impacts of temporary events, of temporal matters of but fleeting moment — let not these deter us in our unconquerable purpose.
With Thy blessing, we shall prevail over the unholy forces of our enemy. Help us to conquer the apostles of greed and racial arrogances. Lead us to the saving of our country, and with our sister nations into a world unity that will spell a sure peace — a peace invulnerable to the schemings of unworthy men. And a peace that will let all of men live in freedom, reaping the just rewards of their honest toil.
Thy will be done, Almighty God.