Gettysburg and a Nation “Under God”

by Ed Whelan

In today’s Public Discourse essay on the 150th anniversary of Lincoln’s Gettysburg address, Matthew S. Holland observes:

In Lincoln’s day, while America’s dedication to human equality could be seen as propositional, its embrace of God’s providential role in the world was a given. Now it seems that the reverse is true. Today, the notion of human equality is thankfully recognized as an uncontested and foundational fact of the republic, whereas the sense that we are a nation with a right, if not a duty, to recognize the existence and direction of a Creator is in a growing state of disputation.

As if to confirm Holland’s concern, President Obama has recited a draft version of the Gettysburg address that doesn’t include the phrase “under God.” Filmmaker Ken Burns says that he asked Obama to recite that draft version. But even if that’s a full and true account (I have to wonder whether the White House asked Burns to ask Obama to read that version), why would Obama agree to do so?

As Princeton professor Robert P. George discussed in this First Things essay, the pamphlet Constitution distributed by the American Constitution Society also uses a godless draft version of the Gettysburg address. What possible justification is there for using that draft version? As Professor George points out:

Three entirely independent reporters, including a reporter for the Associated Press, telegraphed their transcriptions of Lincoln’s remarks to their editors immediately after the president spoke. All three transcriptions include the words “under God,” and no contemporaneous report omits them. There isn’t really room for equivocation or evasion: Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address—one of the founding texts of the American republic—expressly characterizes the United States as a nation under God.

The American Constitution Society used a godless draft version, Professor George reasonably surmises, because “the Great Emancipator’s characterization of the United States as a nation under God appears to undermine the strict separationism that the American Constitution Society wishes to promote.” Whether he affirmatively invited the godless draft or simply acquiesced in its selection, it’s difficult to resist the conclusion that Obama finds that version more congenial to his secularist ideology.

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