The God of American Public Life is Dead

Those seeking out the divine should forget Trump’s prayers and return to Lincoln’s.

What should the public make of President Donald Trump’s latest gesture to God?

In some peculiar remarks at the Rose Garden this month, the president meditated on the role of the divine in quashing a possible federal indictment. Referring to the two-year investigation into his campaign’s communications with Russia during the 2016 presidential election, Trump reflected, “People say, ‘How do you get through that whole stuff? How do you go through those witch hunts and everything else?’”

“We just do it,” he answered. “And we think about God.”

The reference, part of a longer oration observing the National Day of Prayer, accompanied other strange invocations, including to Americans “using the word ‘God’ again” and to the supposed renewal of the popular holiday greeting “Merry Christmas.”

Anyone familiar with the history of the Republican Party knows that public reverence for God (always the Christian God) is something of a fixture of that party’s politics. Yet many may forget that those gestures did not always ring quite so hollow. Only recently did the God of the GOP become the God of exonerated presidents and low corporate taxes.


Abraham Lincoln, the first Republican president and, for many decades, the moral bedrock of the Grand Old Party, was as pious a statesman as ever there was (notwithstanding his supposed agnosticism in private life). His 1859 “Lecture on Discoveries and Inventions” is still distinguished for the most biblical references of any presidential speech ever delivered — a staggering 23. Among his many wartime writings there was a “Proclamation of a National Fast Day,” an “Order for Sabbath Observance,” and — on two occasions — a “Proclamation of Thanksgiving,” back when Thanksgiving referred to a practice of Christian reflection and not just a civic holiday. Among Lincoln’s private journal entries, there appeared in 1862 a “Meditation on the Divine Will,” where he considered God’s role in the ongoing Civil War.

It’s worth remembering some of the better passages from those texts. In his 1862 “Order for Sabbath Observance,” Lincoln promised Sunday rest for the weary Union soldiers. He had reasons both civic and moral for issuing that order. As a matter of faith, it reflected each man’s “due regard for the Divine will” and his enjoyment of a sacred privilege consecrated in the very formula of creation (God rested after six days of world-building, according to Abrahamic tradition). As a practical matter, the routine of resting affirmed a basic fact of our biology and the biology of all living things — of “man and beast,” according to Lincoln. As a civic matter, rest affirmed the “sacred rights” of each person to worship in accordance with their values. Government, Lincoln knew, could not enforce work during the Sabbath.

Other passages offer similar lessons. In his 1863 “Proclamation of Thanksgiving,” Lincoln implored a day of public humility during a time of crisis. America owed two apologies, according to Lincoln. First to its greatest victims, the slaves, for the crime of their enslavement, implied in a reference to “our national perverseness and disobedience." Then to its secondary victims, “all those who have become widows, orphans, mourners or sufferers” in the war to end slavery. As a moral gesture, humility marked an apology to both parties. It asked God for deliverance from the perverse violence of slavery and the corrective violence of war. God would decide if and when proper punishment had been meted out.

Lincoln’s God, it is safe to say, is not Trump’s God. The former was a benchmark of cosmic justice and an affirmation of human dignity — a standard by which reformers could excoriate the institution of slavery and reflect on each person’s communion with nation and nature. The God of today’s GOP is an impoverished divinity — little more than a signal of the right’s confirmation bias. When Donald Trump admits to thinking “about God” during an investigation into his alleged election fraud, he is substituting Lincoln’s moral benchmark for something much shakier. He is deifying himself.

The public ought to be skeptical of that moral vision. Any good student of American history remembers first encountering the awesome God of Lincoln’s second inaugural address, a God intent on destroying slavery. That God was no champion of blind forgiveness, as Trump’s seems to be. He was a God of justice, determined that “every drop of blood drawn” under slavery should be repaid “with the sword.”

Anyone observing the National Day of Prayer next year would do well to seek out Lincoln’s God — whether for advice, judgment, or forgiveness. “God,” Lincoln wrote in a journal entry in 1862, “cannot be for, and against the same thing at the same time. In the present civil war it is quite possible that God’s purpose is something different from the purpose of either party." One wonders whether Trump would acknowledge the same possibility, or whether the God of his prayers is in fact the GOP masquerading in holy garb.

Henry N. Brooks ’19 is a Social Studies concentrator in Currier House. His column appears on alternate Fridays.