With God on His Side
By GARRY WILLS
From: New York Times
Religion in America is much like Nature in the famous saying of Horace: ''Nature, pitchfork
it out how you may, keeps tumbling back in on you, slyly overbears your shying from it.'' In
the same way, no matter how much Jefferson and Madison tried to pitchfork religion out of
official governmental actions, it has kept sneaking back in, beating down attempts to contain
it. Madison said that religion is ''not within the cognizance of civil government.'' He did not
even want ministers of religion to list their profession in the government's census, since
''the general government is proscribed from interfering, in any manner whatever, in matters
respecting religion, and it may be thought to do this in ascertaining who and who are not the
ministers of the gospel.''
Madison would be surprised at how much religion gets ''cognized'' in, say, Karl Rove's
Rolodex. The nation's executive mansion is currently honeycombed with prayer groups and
Bible study cells, like a whited monastery. A sly dig there is ''Missed you at Bible study,''
as David Frum reported in ''The Right Man'' with a ''twitch,'' since ''Bible study was, if
not compulsory, not quite uncompulsory, either'' when he was in Bush's White House. Friends
going to intimate dinners with the Bushes should be prepared to lead the prayer said before
The answer to Madison has implicitly been this: a nation with no cognizance of religion has
no cognizance of God, and without national recognition of his authority, it will not come
within his protection. That is not an advantage a country can do without, especially in
times of peril. It is unpatriotic to expose the nation to its enemies without taking every
measure possible to insure the divine blessing. In the minds of the devout, it is therefore
a politically dangerous act to teach ''godless'' evolution in our schools rather than biblical
''creationism.'' It is tempting the divine wrath to let a ''massacre of the innocents'' go
forward in abortion clinics. Pornography offends God and therefore forfeits his benevolence.
Nor can we be safe from terrorists unless we see that a ''blessed country'' (to use the
president's words) must extend God's will of liberty for other countries, by force if
These impulses are strongest in times of danger or uncertainty. It was during the gulf war that
the current president's father rallied the nation to prayer, saying on Jan. 31, 1991:
''Across this nation the churches, the synagogues, the mosques are packed -- record attendance
at services. In fact, the night the war began, Dr. [Billy] Graham was at the White House. And
he spoke to us then of the importance of turning to God as a people of faith, turning to him in
hope. And then the next morning, Dr. Graham went over to Fort Meyer, where we had a lovely
service leading our nation in a beautiful prayer service there, with special emphasis on the
troops overseas. . . . One cannot be president of our country without faith in God -- and
without knowing with certainty that we are one nation under God. . . . God is our rock and
salvation, and we must trust him and keep faith in him. . . . Today, I'm asking and designating
that Sunday, Feb. 3, be a national day of prayer.''
There is ample precedent for such official religiosity in time of war. It was in the period of
the cold war with what President Truman always called ''godless Communism'' that ''under God''
was added to the Pledge of Allegiance. It was in World War II that ''God Bless America'' became
the country's unofficial anthem. Of World War I, President Wilson said that it showed America
marching to heights ''upon which there rests nothing but the pure light of the justice of God,''
reflecting the ''glimmer of light which came at Calvary, that first dawn which came with the
Christian era.'' It was in the Civil War that ''The Battle Hymn of the Republic'' was composed,
with its echoes of Isaiah 63:3 and Revelation 14:20: ''He is trampling out the vintage where
the grapes of wrath are stored.'' It was in the War of 1812 that Francis Scott Key wrote the
words of our official anthem: ''Praise the Power that has made and preserved us a nation. Then
conquer we must when our cause is just.'' It was during New England's conflict with Native
Americans, culminating in King Philip's war, that the jeremiad became a popular sermon form.
The sufferings of the colonists were seen as a punishment for sin, so preachers had to rise
like Jeremiah to rebuke the people for their falling off from God.
THE MOST EVIL PEOPLE IN THE WORLD