"THE FUNDAMENTAL basis of this nation's law was given to Moses on the Mount. The fundamental basis of our Bill of Rights comes from the teachings which we get from Exodus and St. Matthew, from Isaiah and St. Paul. I don't think we emphasize that enough these days.
"If we don't have the proper fundamental moral background, we will finally wind up with a totalitarian government which does not believe in right for anybody except the state."
No, President Harry Truman in a 1950 speech before a conference on law enforcement.
When Robertson summoned God to his side as he revealed his future in presidential politics at DAR Constitution Hall on Wednesday, liberals cringed.
But what about the liberal heroes who regularly invoked God and the Bible, and claimed that both were on their side?
Judging from one of his famous radio addresses, Franklin Roosevelt would have been a welcome guest on Robertson's 700 Club television show. FDR told America: "No greater thing could come to our land today than a revival of the spirit of religion -- a revival that would sweep through the homes of the nation and stir the hearts of men and women of all faiths to a reassertion of their belief in God and their dedication to His will for themselves and for their world. I doubt if there is any problem -- social, political or economic -- that would not melt away before the fire of such a spiritual awakening."
In 1911, the year before he was elected president, Woodrow Wilson not only assured 12,000 listeners that he was right with the Lord, but then had the speech printed and widely distributed. Imagine the outcry if Robertson or anyone else on the right said:
"America was born a Christian nation. America was born to exemplify that devotion to the elements of righteousness which are derived from the revelations of Holy Scripture.
"Ladies and gentlemen, I have a very simple thing to ask of you. I ask of every man and woman in this audience that from this night on they will realize that part of the destiny of America lies in their daily perusal of this great book of revelations -- that if they would see America free and pure they will make their own spirits free and pure by this baptism of the Holy Scripture."
Wilson went so far as to claim divine sanction for war. Consider the reaction if Ronald Reagan had said in 1979 that "there are times in the history of nations, when they must take up the crude instruments of bloodshed in order to vindicate spiritual conceptions. For liberty is a spiritual conception, and when men take up arms to set other men free, there is something sacred and holy in the warfare. I will not cry 'peace' so long as there is sin and wrong in the world."
Of course, Wilson and Truman put scripture to a far different use than Robertson. Wilson entitled his address "The Bible and Progress" and used scripture to turn up the heat on his more conservative opponents. After Truman talked about the "proper moral background," he ripped into enemies of his Fair Deal programs:
"Above all, we must recognize that human misery breeds most of our crime. We must wipe out our slums, improve the health of our citizens, and eliminate the inequalities of opportunity which embitter men and women and turn them toward lawlessness."
The 20th century presidency has not been a solely secular office, least of all when Democrats struggled with the burden.
In Ronnie Dugger's biography of Lyndon Johnson, "The Politician," there's an account of a dinner party where Johnson cornered the Austrian ambassador and quizzed him on the Holy Ghost's visitations to earth. When the ambassador doubted that it had happened for quite some time, "the president told him that he knew the Holy Ghost was making such visitations, because the Holy Ghost was visiting him."
Jimmy Carter, who often spoke of the fact that he was a born-again Christian, told a campaign crowd in North Carolina in 1976: "I spent more time on my knees the four years I was governor, in the seclusion of a little private room in the governor's office, than I did in the rest of my life put together."
Even though we assume that the old days must have been more pious than the last 86 years of sin, it's among some of the conservatives' beloved founding fathers that we can find contradictions to that theory.
Thomas Jefferson approved the efforts of his attorney general, Levi Lincoln, to get preachers out of politics. Lincoln chided New England preachers for being "recruiting sergeants" for the opposition Federalist party and admonished them not to place "the dogmas of party against the injunctions of religion."
John Adams, who proclaimed himself a Christian in his inaugural address, blamed his defeat for re-election on his calling for a day of fasting, humiliation and prayers to Christ. His son, John Quincy Adams, was more devout than his father but readily took the advice of his cabinet not to proclaim a day of thanksgiving that the preachers of the District of Columbia were requesting.
James Madison went to such lengths to avoid mixing government with religion that Congress passed a resolution to force him to call on God's help at the beginning of the War of 1812. Madison wrote a proclamation inviting those "so disposed" to pray "to Almighty God on the solemn occasion produced by the war in which He has been pleased to permit the injustice of a foreign power to involve these United States."
So much as to say, if you believe God can help us win the war, admit that He also got us into this mess.
When the enemy burned Washington two years later, preachers noted this earlier impiety.
But then again, the Lord works in strange ways. After John Adams' defeat presidents kept Christ out of their inaugural addresses, confining themselves to invoking the "Almighty Being", "that Power", the "Supreme Author of All Good," and so on. It wasn't until after the election of 1840 that Christ again made a major appearance in a presidential inaugural address. Then, William Henry Harrison stood in front of the Capitol and expressed "a profound reverence for the Christian religion."
The Lord called Harrison home to his reward 32 days later.
Bob Arnebeck is a Washington writer and a frequent commentator on historical subjects for National Public Radio's "Morning Edition."