July 19, 2010
Jesus and America
— Martin E. Marty
“If you would like to know Jesus as Lord and Savior, Call Need Him Ministry.” That invitation appears at the bottom of a full-page Hobby Lobby ad that ran in scores, if not hundreds, of newspapers a fortnight ago, appropriately on the Fourth of July. More prominent was the motto in the middle of the big page, in bold type: IN GOD WE TRUST. The juxtaposition of the Jesus-invitation and the America-claim inspires some reflection. Nowadays, writers have to “declare an interest,” so I’ll declare mine. I “came to know Jesus as Lord and Savior” on February 26, 1928 – at baptism – and grew a bit in that knowledge as years have passed, so the phrase is fine with me. As for “In God ‘We’…," I am never sure how inclusive the ‘We’ may be. From what I’ve read of the Hobby Lobby people, I am not sure non-Christians or the wrong kind of Christians would be included, but we can generously treat it generically, keeping the boundaries vague.
Around the bold motto are portraits of four founders of the United States, all of whom trusted in God, however defined – and they did their own defining. (In smaller print under them, without picture, is also a word from former President Ronald Reagan, but let’s stick to the founders’ point.) George Washington, John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, and Benjamin Franklin all receive three- to five-line spaces for testimony connecting God with “all nations” (Washington), with “a moral and religious people (Adams), “a people” and “my country” (Jefferson), and “the affairs of men” plus “an empire” (Franklin). The Hobby Lobby people have enough integrity not to try to smuggle in a reference to Jesus as Lord and Savior in the “Founders” part of the ad.
Bloggers, as you can easily find, are passionately pro or con the idea of the ad. I, for one, would argue that this is a legitimate way to witness: not through privileging Christian testimony, but by letting free marketers in religion use non-coercive, non-governmental instruments. The fact that this kind of ad is quite rare, however, illustrates why the courts get so many cases dealing with Jesus in the civil realm. The “Christmas wars” are not about crèches on the 30,000 lawns of a city, but on the 300 square feet of everybody’s “civil space” on the court house lawn.
The rest of the controversy deals with the four founders and their faiths. Many bloggers quote fake lines or distort what was said, in efforts to “Christianize” the big four. That won’t work. And contenders against them often make the mistake of trying to fit the four into a groove called “Deism.” They did have many things in common with Deist belief. If Deists had a church, Franklin could have served as a creed-maker. Unitarians did have a church and Jefferson let his contemporaries know that he felt at home there, where Jesus was not Lord and Savior but a humanist-ethicist’s dream.
It’s wiser to keep Founders’ beliefs vague, as they did. Jefferson once told the Delaware Indians it’d be nice for them to know about Jesus’ religion, but dropped the subject after one line. The Founders all believed that morality was important for the republic – of course! – and some of them sometimes linked “morality” with “religion,” still in that vague way. Franklin wittily ducked the Jesus-as-divine question, but believed in God the way – oops! –Deists did. Bottom line: Let Hobby Lobby invite you to Jesus. It’s a free country. Let their ads help them swell the coffers of newspapers, which desperately need advertisements. And we keep enjoying a republic where debates over religion, God, Jesus, and the public order can so openly occur.
For Further Information:
Click here to watch Glenn Beck discuss George Washington's faith with Peter Lillback, author of the bestselling George Washington's Fire: http://www.arlingtoncardinal.com/2010/05/19/glenn-beck-endorses-book-george-washingtons-sacred-fire-book-climbs-from-450000-rank-to-1-in-books/.
Martin E. Marty's biography, current projects, publications, and contact information can be found at www.illuminos.com.