Amid terrible times of suffering, Americans turn to God. Americans always have been, after all, a religious people. George Washington believed the American Revolution, and the ensuing experiment in free government, were guided by the hand of Providence, because he thought God on the side of freedom. Abraham Lincoln, in his Second Inaugural Address, a work no less theological and philosophic than political and poetic, interpreted the horrors of the Civil War as divine retribution for the sin of slavery.
Americans of old understood what is right, and reasonably expected God to shine His blessings on them and protect them when they lived rightly. And they feared Him when they strayed. They understood that God is good, that God favors freedom over tyranny, justice over injustice. They understood that the principles of America are good — that it is the first country in human history founded on the "laws of nature and of nature's God" — and that their patriotic duty to their country is no less a duty to God.
Today many of our ministers, priests, and rabbis neither think nor speak this way. As a nation we have succumbed to modern ideas that blur, if not erase, the distinctions between right and wrong, good and evil. These ideas have come to dominate our halls of worship, as they dominate our legislative halls and halls of education. Many churches today fail to teach patriotism because they no longer know what is right, and they no longer know America to be right.
But this week we have seen the face of evil up close. Evil has been thrust upon us. If anything good is to come from these terrible events, we must use them as reminders of the principles of right and the duties of citizenship. Our God and our Constitution demand it. Our slain countrymen deserve it.
One way to help us remember these things is to recall the sermons delivered during the American Founding. These sermons represent a religion that knew right from wrong, as clearly as it knew day from night, because it understood that the principles of right are made available to man by his reason no less than divine revelation. What follows are excerpts from a 1758 sermon delivered by Samuel Davies to the militia of Hanover County, Virginia, as that body sought new recruits to fight the French and Indian War:
Cursed be he that doth the work of the lord deceitfully; and cursed be he that keepeth back his sword from blood. Jeremiah 48:10
Nothing can be more agreeable to the God of Peace than to see universal harmony and benevolence prevail among His creatures; and He has laid them under the strongest obligations to cultivate a pacific temper toward one another, both as individuals and as nations. "Follow peace with all men," is one of the principal precepts of our holy religion. And the great Prince of Peace has solemnly pronounced, "Blessed are the peacemakers."
But when, in this corrupt, disordered state of things, where the lusts of men are perpetually embroiling the world with wars and fighting and throwing all into confusion; when ambition and avarice would rob us of our property, for which we have toiled and on which we subsist; when they would enslave the freeborn mind and compel us meanly to cringe to usurpation and arbitrary power; when they would tear from our eager grasp the most valuable blessing of Heaven, I mean our religion; when they invade our country, formerly the region of tranquility, ravage our frontiers, butcher our fellow subjects, or confine them in a barbarous captivity in the dens of savages; when our earthly all is ready to be seized by rapacious hands, and even our eternal all is in danger by the loss of our religion; when this is the case, what then is the will of God?
Must peace then be maintained? Maintained with our perfidious and cruel invaders? Maintained at the expense of property, liberty, life, and everything dear and valuable? Maintained, when it is in our power to vindicate our right and do ourselves justice? Is the work of peace then our only business? No. In such a time even the God of Peace proclaims by His providence, "To arms!"
Then the sword is, as it were, consecrated to God; and the art of war becomes a part of our religion. Then happy is he that shall reward our enemies, as they have served us. Blessed is the brave soldier; blessed is the defender of his country and the destroyer of its enemies. Blessed are they who offer themselves willingly in this service, and who faithfully discharge it....
...Some [Americans] lie dead, mangled with savage wounds, consumed to ashes with outrageous flames, or torn and devoured by the beasts of the wilderness, while their bones lie whitening in the sun and serve as tragic memorials of the fatal spot where they fell. Others have been dragged away captives and made the slaves of imperious and cruel savages. Others have made their escape and live to lament their butchered or captivated friends and relations. In short, our frontiers have been drenched with the blood of our fellow subjects, through the length of a thousand miles; and new wounds are still opening...
Will this violence cease without a vigorous and timely resistance from us? No. We have no method left but to repel force with force, and to give them blood to drink in their turn who have drunk ours...
I seriously make the proposal to you, not only as a subject of the best of kings and a friend to your country but as a servant of the most high God; for I am fully persuaded what I am recommending is His will; and disobedience to it may expose you to His curse...
...The cause in which these brave men, and our army in general, are engaged is not so much their own as ours. Divine Providence considers them not so much in their private, personal character as in their public character as the representatives and guardians of their country; and, therefore, they will stand or fall, not so much according to their own personal character as according to the public character of the people whose cause they have undertaken. Be it known to you, then, their success depends upon us even more than upon themselves.
...Ye that love ease and shrink from the dangers of war; ye that wish to see peace restored once more; ye that would be happy beyond the grave and live forever — attend to my proposal. It is this: A THOROUGH NATIONAL REFORMATION. This will do what millions of money and thousands of men, with guns and swords and all the dreadful artillery of death, could not do — it will procure us peace again, a lasting, well-established peace.
Our enemies think their political cause — the cause of tyranny — is good. We think the cause of freedom and constitutional government good. Both think God on their side. It cannot be. As the preachers of the American Founding explained, reason is the voice of God, no less than revelation. Reason and revelation agree on the equal rights of all men, government by consent, and the rule of law. Any revelation, any religion, that contradicts these simple dictates of rational morality — that denies the equality of all men, and the equal rights of liberty, life, and conscience with which we are endowed by our Creator — is untrue.
If the enemies of freedom wish to discuss these things, we will demonstrate why their position is unreasonable, unjust, and evil. But if our enemies refuse to talk, if they refuse to heed the counsels of reason, and choose instead to make war, we will make sure they get it. In those times, terrible times such as we face today, let us follow the Abraham of America, our great Civil War President, having faith that "right makes might, and in that faith, let us, to the end, dare to do our duty as we understand it."