Hope, Faith, and Justice: The Role of Aspirational Religiosity in American Rhetoric

By David Cappella, Contributor

As the 2016 presidential election begins to cast its minacious pall over our media consumption, America’s culture wars seem as likely as ever to divide us and provoke moral outrage. Now may be a good time to take a step back and examine how religiosity may actually have had a positive, aspirational role in American political life.

Historically, nearly every great orator has invoked God in their appeal to the American people. This persistent pattern cannot be dismissed as an empty rhetorical device when the likes of Washington, Lincoln, Kennedy, and even Obama consistently appeal to the Creator as a means of spurring Americans to action. Here are some illuminating quotes:

George Washington:Observe good faith and justice towards all nations; cultivate peace and harmony with all. Religion and morality enjoin this conduct…”

Abraham Lincoln: “With malice toward none; with charity for all; with firmness in the right, as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in…”

John F. Kennedy: “…They that wait upon the Lord shall renew their strength; they shall mount up with wings as eagles; they shall run and not be weary.” As we face the coming challenge, we too, shall wait upon the Lord, and ask that he renew our strength. Then shall we be equal to the test. Then we shall not be weary. And then we shall prevail.”

Martin L. King, Jr.: “I have a dream that one day every valley shall be exalted, and every hill and mountain shall be made low, the rough places will be made plain, and the crooked places will be made straight; “and the glory of the Lord shall be revealed and all flesh shall see it together.”

Barack Obama: “ Hope in the face of difficulty, hope in the face of uncertainty, the audacity of hope: In the end, that is God’s greatest gift to us, the bedrock of this nation, a belief in things not seen, a belief that there are better days ahead.”

Not only do these orators press Americans to remember God to find strength to meet the challenges of the day, but there is an air of assurance to it, a sense that religion may in fact be something that unites Americans—despite what today’s culture wars portend. How can this peculiarly American juxtaposition of religiosity and feisty political will persist?

The answer lies in the 1st Amendment: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” The Constitution ensures that no religion will be established over another and no one will be prevented from peaceably practicing their religion (so long as there is no harm to others). Effectively this means public leaders can express their religious views aspirationally without coming across as threatening to those not of their faith.

The markedly American emphasis on God in public life is not a mistake, it reflects an institutional design which gives individuals freedom of expression while protecting opposing viewpoints. We would be remiss to forget this as we brace for the oncoming storm of election season rancor.

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