Arnold M. Eisen: Presidents and Providence

Roundup: Talking About History

[Arnold M. Eisen, one of the world’s foremost experts on American Judaism, is the seventh chancellor of The Jewish Theological Seminary. Since his inauguration in 2007, Chancellor Eisen has met with world leaders, engaged in prominent interdenominational and interfaith dialogues, and championed a transformation in the education of the next generation of Conservative leadership.]

Presidents' Day coincides this year with the Torah reading that recounts the building and destruction of the Golden Calf. We mark the birthday of Abraham Lincoln, who lost his life within weeks of declaring the Civil War to be God's punishment for the sin of slavery, and then the birthday of George Washington, who offered "fervent supplication to that Almighty Being who rules over the universe, who presides in the councils of nations, and whose providential aids can supply every defect ... " Both presidents believed in some form of divine providence; indeed, American civil religion as a whole has always kept in view the image of God on high, just and merciful, Who seems to tolerate societal transgressions like the Golden Calf only so long and then "descends" to render swift and terrible judgment. Our greatest presidents did not agree on how closely God exercised that providence or the form taken by God's special concern for the United States of America. Their thinking remains helpful to religious Americans today.

Washington was the more circumspect of the two on this topic. Scholars divide on the exact nature of his beliefs as well as on the public expression of those beliefs. We do not know for sure whether he took communion in the Episcopal Church or how regularly he attended Sunday worship. We do know that Washington believed religion to be good for the nation and gave voice as president to a broad and sincere tolerance to Jews and Catholics. He also made frequent reference to God's providence in private correspondence as well as in public declarations. The first Thanksgiving Proclamation, issued in October 1789, urged service to "that great and glorious Being who is the beneficent author of all the good that was, that is, of what will be." Washington's first inaugural address that same year warned that "the propitious smiles of Heaven can never be expected on a nation that disregards the eternal rules of order and right which Heaven itself has ordained."

It is not clear from these or other speeches what Washington meant by providence. Like many believers before and since, he guarded a certain vagueness on the matter. He seems to have believed, humbly but firmly, that God played a role in entrusting the United States of America with "the sacred fire of liberty" and "the destiny of the republican model of government." More he could or would not say.

Lincoln was more explicit; the Second Inaugural Address, delivered March 4, 1865, is about as strong a statement as one could imagine of divine reward and punishment on the biblical model. Indeed, Lincoln makes the point that both North and South "read the same Bible and pray to the same God and each invokes His aid against the other." He was confident that the North read and acted more faithfully. Slavery was wrong. But "let us judge not, lest we be judged ... The Almighty has His own purposes."

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