Don’t Forget God’s Role in the Nation’s History

Posted January 12, 2009 at 3:26pm

‘Alone I would be utterly powerless, but sustained by the good people that love our country I will go forward … with the conviction firmly fixed in my mind that God will save and perpetuate the Nation if we but do our duty … The destinies of nations are in His hands.”

So spoke President-elect Abraham Lincoln shortly before he left Springfield, Ill., on his long, circuitous train trip to Washington, D.C., in February 1861. That passage is from a book out just in time to welcome the latest president from Illinois.

Did Lincoln really believe the destinies of nations are in God’s hands? You would not think so if you took a tour of Washington’s huge, new underground Capitol Visitor Center. This is Congress’ $621 million, 580,000-square-foot monument to itself. And it comes perilously close to suggesting that St. Paul was wrong when he said it is in God that “we move and breathe and have our being.” No, the builders of the CVC would have us look to Congress to provide our daily bread.

“In God We Trust” is there. The United States’ official motto is above the model of the House of Representatives. But it’s pitched in the half-light, subdued, we are told, to protect delicate old documents. Liberals like to say we have “a living Constitution,” but it’s not clear at this visitor center that we have a living God. At most, he is to be found among the relics. It’s rather like the “compromise” that they achieved at the College of William & Mary earlier this year. The cross no longer stands on the altar in the college’s Wren Chapel. It’s been consigned to a glass case, off to the side and out of the way.

This should not be a liberal or conservative issue. We have probably had no more liberal a justice of the U.S. Supreme Court than William O. Douglas. Yet it was Douglas who wrote: “We are a religious people whose institutions presuppose a Supreme Being.” There is none of Douglas’ presupposing at the CVC.

The exhibits even censor the words of the Northwest Ordinance of 1787, one of the oldest and most important of America’s founding documents. The Founders’ opening clause reads: “Religion, morality, and knowledge, being necessary to good government and the happiness of mankind …” The Architect of the Capitol has eliminated that important preamble. It’s a significant omission. He has gutted the document. His rendering minimizes civil society while inflating the role of government in Americans’ national life.

One thing in the CVC that we should all praise is the white plaster model of the 19-foot Statue of Freedom. The bronze version graces the Capitol Dome. Now, we can all see Thomas Crawford’s 19th-century allegorical figure up close and personal. She stands in majestic dignity in an open space called Emancipation Hall.

The story of the making and transporting of this beautiful statue is fascinating. Sculpted in Italy, she was carried by ship on a hazardous voyage to Bermuda and from there brought to Washington. When she arrived, however, the Capitol Dome was still not complete. Philip Reid, then a young slave belonging to a local foundry owner, was one of those tasked with handling the 15,000-pound bronze statue. How bizarre it must have seemed to Reid to strain with all his strength to protect the Statue of Freedom. But when she was finally hoisted into place in December 1862, Reid and all his fellow laborers in Washington were free men. Congress had abolished slavery in the District of Columbia.

Wouldn’t this have been a fine place to tell the story of President Abraham Lincoln’s decision to issue the Emancipation Proclamation? After all, the huge entry plaza is named Emancipation Hall. Lincoln told his Cabinet in September 1862 that he would issue the preliminary Emancipation Proclamation because he had “made a promise to my Maker.” The president told his chief advisers that he had prayed to God: If the Union were granted a victory at the Battle of Antietam, he would gratefully free the slaves still held by rebels.

In his annual message to Congress on Dec. 1, 1862, Lincoln wrote, “[I]n giving freedom to the slave, we assure freedom to the free …” It was, he wrote, an effort that “God must forever bless.”

The tragic flaw in the CVC is that it leaves out the reason why there can even be an Emancipation Hall. Without Lincoln’s faith in God, without the prayers to almighty God of millions of Americans — including ex-slaves such as Harriet Tubman, Frederick Douglass and Reid — there would have been no Emancipation Proclamation. Nor would there likely be a free Congress to celebrate or to visit. Lincoln understood that the outcome of the Civil War depended the survival of free government. That’s why he told Congress that a freer America was “the last best hope of earth.” That story deserves a full retelling at the Capitol Visitor Center.

Robert G. Morrison is vice president for academic affairs at the Family Research Council and researcher for Bill Bennett’s “America: The Last Best Hope.”