Blessing vs. Damning America

"I've spoken of the shining city all my political life.... [I]n my mind it was a tall, proud city built on rocks stronger than oceans, wind-swept, God-blessed...."
   - President Ronald Reagan, Farewell Address, January 11, 1989

"'God Bless America?' No, no, no, God d--- America.... God d--- America.... God d--- America!!"
   - Jeremiah Wright, pastor to Barack Obama for two decades
The spiritual mentors of Ronald Reagan shaped his understanding and vision of America's role in the world. Why would anyone assume the same does not hold true for Barack Obama?

Americans have always been a religious people, with the vast majority believing in God and a consistent majority attending religious services -- from the founding to today. The so-called worldview and even politics of many Americans are frequently shaped, guided, or reinforced by what they hear week after week from behind the pulpit, from the person of God they respect and usually admire as their pastor. A pastor leads the flock. A good pastor reads and applies Scripture to the times -- to the events of the day.  Pastors hold an immense responsibility, as they can very well mold a citizen, leader, and even that rarest of congregants who have the extraordinary potential to become president of the United States.

Academics who study religion and politics talk about "civil religion." Jean Jacques Rousseau maintained that no state had ever been founded without a religious basis, nor could it survive without appealing to its citizens through some form of religion, or, as he put it, through some form of "civil religion." Citizens need a transcendent cause, something larger in which to believe. For most typical states, civil religion is understood as an infusion of sacred principles drawn from a nation's own civil traditions and from those of a conventional, organized religion -- a kind of mixture of political allegiance and religious sentiment.

America itself is a good illustration of this. In American history, civil religion has been associated with positives images -- America as a promised land and new Jerusalem, Americans as a chosen people, to name just two. In fact, many left-leaning academics do not like how this fusing of the political and the religious has led, in their view, to excessive patriotism, in which America is seen as possessing a dangerous notion of divine mandate that can err on the side of self-righteousness and imperialism. And of course, that's a balance that any American leader needs to be careful to keep in mind.

Nonetheless, overall, this sort of civil religion perceives America positively.

To the contrary, there is another admixture of faith and politics that strays in the other direction -- a kind of un-civil religion, I suppose. This brand draws from America's worst sins, real and imagined, and employs them to construct a terrible America, one that has been a force for hell and havoc in this world -- so bad that it deserves the worst calamities that befall it, like everyday business people being ignited into flames and violently dislodged from atop the World Trade Center buildings on September 11, 2001. Rather than an image of America whose first leader knelt in the snow of Valley Forge to seek the counsel of Divine Providence, here's an America whose men in charge border the demonic, heading to the lab to manufacture everything from crack cocaine to the AIDS virus so they can kill black Americans.

This view of America is the one, of course, perpetuated by the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, pastor to Senator Barack Obama (D-IL), the frontrunner for the Democratic presidential nomination and quite possibly the next president of the United States. It is a toxic brew that we can only hope and pray has not sunk deep into the marrow of the bones of Senator Obama. That hateful view of an insidious, malevolent America might be contrasted with the kind of America that President Ronald Reagan -- regularly ranked as one of our most beloved presidents -- learned about from the pulpit:

Reagan was heavily influenced by his pastor in Dixon, Illinois, a man named Ben Cleaver, who was a father figure to the young Reagan. Cleaver had attended the University of Chicago, near Obama and Wright's church, and learned to read Hebrew and classical Greek. He was well read and curious, intellectual, and patriotic, harboring a faith in the American founders, given to invoking the likes of Washington and Lincoln. On one such speech to the local American Legion in February 1927, Cleaver spoke of the decidedly different upbringings of the two presidents, emphasizing that neither man's background, whether rich or poor, stopped him from making his mark on history.

Cleaver, a member of the Disciples of Christ denomination, was influenced by church leaders like Alexander Campbell. For Campbell and other 19th century Disciples, America's destiny was often prophetically interpreted, and the nation had a democratic mission to save the world from autocrats. Campbell believed the world's fate rested on America. In July 1830, Campbell declared the world "must look" to America "for its emancipation from the most heartless spiritual despotism ever." "This is our special mission in the world as a nation and a people," said Campbell, "and for this purpose the Ruler of nations has raised us up and made us the wonder and the admiration of the world." Campbell confidently predicted the "speedy overthrow" of "false religion [and] oppressive governments." He spoke of America as a "beacon," a "light unto the nations."

This was the kind of instruction that Ronald Reagan got from his church and the pulpit of Rev. Ben Cleaver, not to mention similarly uplifting messages from additional pastors, like the Rev. Cleveland Kleihauer, who pastored Reagan's church in Hollywood when Reagan was at an age comparable to Barack Obama during his time with Rev. Wright.

From his religious instruction and own reading, Ronald Reagan came to view America as "A Shining City Upon a Hill," which he anchored in his understanding of the Old and New Testament and from his knowledge of what John Winthrop had proclaimed aboard the Arabella off the Massachusetts coast in 1630, the latter of which Reagan recited by heart.

The message Reagan took from Matthew 5:14-16 (New Testament) is especially telling. The passage reads:

You are the light of the world. A city on a hill cannot be hidden. Neither do people light a lamp and put it under a bowl. Instead they put it on its stand, and it gives light to everyone in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before men....

A nation that reflects God is not a nation to be hidden under a bowl, Reagan held, just as one would not light a lamp and then cover it with a bowl, not shining its light and extinguishing itself in the process. There's no point to lighting a lamp merely to cover it. Likewise, there's no point to a nation that's a beacon hiding itself. The faithful are not to harness the light only for themselves and their own warmth, but to share and spread it. One must bring that light to where it is needed -- to cast it upon the darkness. For Reagan, that would mean (especially) upon the Soviet Union - an empire he called "evil," and a land he dubbed "the heart of darkness."

Reagan both privatized and nationalized -- and even internationalized -- Matthew 5:14-16. He spoke of the "city on a hill" in this passage as a "Shining City Upon a Hill," as a "beacon." This is what Reagan wanted America to be: a model for all others, a guiding light . He saw America as divinely blessed and chosen to lead the world to freedom.

"I've always believed that this blessed land was set apart in a special way," Reagan said literally innumerable times, "that some divine plan placed this great continent here between the two oceans." It was a divine edict to bring freedom to the world-one that Reagan sought to fulfill. As he summed up in his Farewell Address from the Oval Office on January 11, 1989: "We stood, again, for freedom.... We meant to change a nation, and instead, we changed a world."

In short, Reagan's optimistic view of America would compel him to lead a positive America to create a better world. Reagan looked at America and saw freedom, not slavery.

And that's the kind of thinking that Ronald Reagan took from his religious instruction, beginning with the pulpit of Ben Cleaver. It is not the view of America that Barack Obama has taken from his pulpit of choice. In Obama's case, we can only hope he wasn't ever listening to Pastor Jeremiah Wright's deranged, angry sermons, or that these rants somehow managed to have no effect whatsoever on the senator, his wife, and his children. What are the chances of that?

In a July 1983 speech, Ronald Reagan noted that "two visions of the world remain locked in dispute." One was the American vision, said Reagan, which "believes all men are created equal by a loving God who has blessed us with freedom." The other vision was the Soviet one.

Here today, we have two visions of America locked in dispute, and poised to produce very different fruit. I prefer the image of a blessed Shining City over the view of an America that is deservedly damned.

Paul Kengor is author of God and Ronald Reagan: A Spiritual Life (HarperCollins, 2004) and The Crusader: Ronald Reagan and the Fall of Communism (HarperPerennial, 2007). He is professor of political science at Grove City College.