Patriotic ministers did not shy away from biblical violence. They embraced it, almost celebrated it, even in its most graphic forms. For example, they cited the story of Deborah in Judges 5, about God’s condemnation of those who refused to fight his enemies. This text also includes the heroic story of Jael, a tent-dwelling woman who assassinated a Canaanite general by driving a tent peg through his skull. Ministers often quoted this story with an equally gruesome curse from the prophet Jeremiah: “Cursed be he that keepeth back his sword from blood.”
There were hundreds such sermons — tools for combating the chronic problems of soldier recruitment and morale. In one example, Israel Evans, a favorite chaplain of Washington, praised fallen patriots as “martyrs for the cause of freedom” and called on the remaining troops to “finish the glorious work of liberty! Arise, and lead on your brother soldiers to dreadful deeds of death and slaughter, until the ruthless hand of Britain shall no more disturb the peace of men.”
Likewise, preachers often called patriotic service in war a sacred virtue. As Massachusetts Congregationalist Eli Forbes proclaimed, not every “good Christian is of consequence a good soldier,” but one could not be a good soldier without “the principle and practice of Christianity.” Peter Thacher of Malden, Mass., insisted that “we are fighting . . . for our religion, that religion which the word of God hath instituted and appointed.” So Thacher charged patriots to “fight to the last drop of your blood in this glorious cause.”
Talk of glorious causes has persisted from the revolution through the war on terror. Some Americans think of the United States as “God’s New Israel,” a nation on a divine mission, its wars blessed by God. Sometimes rhetoric makes this view obvious: Soon after Sept. 11, 2001, for example, the White House apologized after President George W. Bush used the word “crusade” to describe the battle against terrorism.
But references to religion can be subtler, or even obligatory, in political speeches. Consider President Obama’s July 4 speech from last year, in which he praised military sacrifices and ended with: “God bless you. God bless your families. And God bless these United States of America.”
We pass over such niceties as commonplace, almost dutiful, in political speech, but they are religious statements. Their roots go back to the revolution, when colonists — from evangelical preachers to founders such as Washington — asked for God’s blessing. Whatever century it is, our leaders often include some suggestion of the same biblical themes that filled revolutionary-era sermons, including sacrifice, courage for the fight and appeals for God’s providential blessings on America.
We are, it seems, one nation under God after all.
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