The National “Tradition” of Belief in God
Watching a televised Fourth of July presentation of a “Salute to America” was impactful and insightful. The sights and sounds were impressive. Much of the focus centered on the nation’s military, which should exist to protect the citizenry, especially those who seek to be, and do, good (cf. Romans 13:3-4). The presentation included an array of tanks, precision military units, and powerful weaponry such as multiple aircraft displayed in impressive flyovers performed by units such as the U. S. Navy’s Blue Angels. Watching those Blue Angels soar above in a six-plane delta formation while unleashing a display of white smoke was a special sight to behold. However, there was more than military prowess on display. Hearing the names of great American heroes, some of whom we have been aware of since childhood, was inspirational. There were such names as George Washington, Betsy Ross, John Glenn, Martin Luther King, and numerous others. Some of the individuals may have been lesser known such as Dr. Emil Freireich whose work in oncology has resulted in successful treatment of childhood leukemia. All were American heroes. Hearing the U. S. Armed Forces Chorus sing service songs adopted respectively by each of the five branches of the United States Armed Forces was powerful.
As impressive as the above elements are, they did not, even collectively, impact me to the degree that one additional constituent element of the “Salute to America” did. The acapella singing of the last stanza of “The Battle Hymn of the Republic” performed by the U. S. Armed Forces Chorus was breathtaking. In 1861, those lyrics along with the other words of this historic song, written by Julia Ward Howe, were sold for a mere five dollars. However, as James P. Moore says in his definitive volume, One Nation Under God: The History of Prayer in America, the words compose what has become “the American hymn of hymns soaring above all others” (174). The final lines from that hymn sung so powerfully during the “Salute to America” are as follows:
In the beauty of the lilies Christ was born across the sea;
With a glory in his bosom that transfigures you and me:
As He died to make men holy, let us die to make men free.
While God is marching on.
Hearing these words in such breathtaking fashion on the 4th of July triggered memory concerning some observations of the late Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia in a book published posthumously (2019). The book, On Faith, is a collection of Scalia’s reflections that evidence how “he vigorously defended the American tradition of allowing religion a prominent place in the public square.” Scalia affirmed and defended the proposition that “our national tradition” has been that which “consistently affirmed a national belief in God” (169).
Relevant to the “Battle Hymn of the Republic,” the Scalia book contains three references to this historic hymn, which imply the error of the so-called principle of neutrality between religion and non-religion in the public square. The late high court justice wrote, “[T]he First Amendment itself is a repudiation of that principle, since the Free Exercise Clause gives special favor to the free exercise of religion. The neutrality principle is also contradicted by the many national practices, dating back to the earliest times, which I have described . . .” (173).
Citing the “Battle Hymn of the Republic,” this great legal mind wrote “. . . [T]he words to the ‘Battle Hymn . . .’ well enough demonstrate . . . make plain” (42, 101) this “tradition” of America’s belief in God. Rather than being a nation characterized by the exclusion of religious-based policies from the sphere of government, the United States has traditionally distinguished itself from other Western democracies by its official public expression of belief in God and adopting policies thought to be in accord with the moral law of God.
Charles C. Pugh III