The Senate, “Under God?” A Pre-Presidents’ Day Post-Impeachment Meditation

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Mitt Romney paused, perhaps in prayer, certainly in faith-filled emotion before casting one of the most meaningful votes in President Trump’s impeachment trial, supporting the charge that the President was guilty of abusing his power. Senator Romney, a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (a “Mormon”), noted that he took making promises before God very seriously. By implication, a good number of those more orthodox Christians in the chamber were treating their promises to be “impartial” with less seriousness. Like the many Evangelical Christians who support the President no matter what, Romney’s Republican colleagues, all of whom claim to be Christian (including the two other Mormons), all declared President Trump to be not guilty of acts he has boasted of committing. 

George Docherty (left) and President Eisenhower (second from left) on the morning of February 7, 1954, at the New York Avenue Presbyterian Church; the morning that Eisenhower was persuaded by Docherty that the Pledge of Allegiance must be amended to include the words, “under God.”

The phrase, “under God,” was added to the Pledge of Allegiance after President Eisenhower was persuaded to support it on February 7, 1954, 66 years ago today. He was sitting in “the Lincoln pew” at New York Avenue Presbyterian Church, invited to the Lincoln Sunday service by the Scottish immigrant pastor, George Docherty. Docherty argued that the US was founded on an idea of accountability to a God greater than any nation, and that specific mention of God would underline that, as in the phrase’s use in Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address. Docherty had originally proposed the addition to a group gathered two years before “to rekindle their patriotism.” 

The evening news compared Romney’s breaking ranks with his party with the vote to convict the President by Senator Doug Jones of Alabama, a Democrat (and United Methodist) up for re-election this year, despite polls showing a majority in his state support the President. Jones’ faithfulness to his oath entailed more risk to his career, but both men will face mobs on-line and on television demonizing them for their integrity. May they be honored as politicians who put principle above ideology or self-interest. They acted as if the Senate and its trial were still “under God,” accountable to moral claims beyond the fear or favors of faction.

Yet what does the unblinking yet blinkered support of all those Republican Christians for arguably the least religious President in history say to the boundary between nationalism and patriotism? This goes beyond the failure of the Senate to be a deliberative body, underlined in the refusal to call impeachment witnesses; an abdication of moral as well as Constitutional authority. And this goes beyond the very grave permission the majority have given the President to break the law. More so than revolutions from below, tyrants eat their children, and the children of others. 

Faith in a God of truth should not mean the kind of certainty or fear that stops investigations. Faith does not make any human being (or political position) the measure of all goodness or all evil, but accepts the task of unmixing the two. That means refusing to outsource your moral judgment to a party or person, and resisting anger, the easiest marker of self-righteousness. A mature faith values perspectives of others outside the self, but gives a final vote to one’s inner guidance system where “God alone is Lord of the conscience” (Westminster Confession).

The symbols of “civil religion” are not always hollow, as they can be illuminated by genuine reverence and courage, as we saw on Wednesday. Yet there is an “honest patriotism” that “loves one’s country enough to admit its mistakes,” in theologian Donald Shriver’s phrase. Contrast this with a false nationalism that cannot admit the mistakes of a head of state, and in that denial further hollows out the moral life of our nation. As I watched all the testimony, the Senate trial seemed to crystalize an either/or moment: under God, or under Trump, with truth the measure. But under God is muchbigger, and while I clearly could admire Romney and Jones, I cannot see what is in the hearts of my sister and brother senators. 

A day after writing the above, news of the President’s “unhinged” behavior at a Prayer Breakfast and at a news conference signal a shamelessness based in amorality. I am no fan of politicized prayer breakfasts, where the real foods are power and envy, but the problem is always that an increasing number of people think that this is what prayer and Christianity are about (See Senator Chris Coons’ fine account of what a prayer breakfast can do). Those public events reflect how Christianity Today editor, Mark Galli, described the President’s Twitter feed: a “ habitual string of mischaracterizations, lies, and slanders—[is] a near perfect example of a human being who is morally lost and confused.” How are the senators who voted to exonerate the president not judged by this gnashing of tweets in the outer darkness?

With regard to Presidents’ Day, much is written comparing various presidents, and it is hard to imagine a greater contrast between Eisenhower’s public piety and Trump’s. Lincoln’s depth of spirit goes beyond them all. But in the Gospel of John, verse 13:16, Jesus warns us: “Very truly, I tell you, servants[a] are not greater than their master, nor are messengers greater than the one who sent them” (New Revised Standard Version). When presidents swear to uphold the Constitution, they promise to serve the United States of America. To say that no public official is above the law is to say, the Constitution is their master. Ultimately all are messengers of the people of the United States, sent to Washington, DC, to “faithfully execute the laws…” No one who believes that our nation is “under God” should imagine that disobeying those laws does not count.


Christian Iosso is an ethicist on staff of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) in Louisville, KY. 

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