Jesus and America -- Sightings

There has been for who knows how long a debate about the role of religion in American society.  Our coins say:  "In God We Trust" and the Pledge of Allegiance says:  "One Nation Under God."  People get pretty heated with their opinions.  Personally, I trust in God, but I'm not sure which God is referred to in this statement.  The same can be said for "One Nation Under God."  Which God are we speaking of?  A generic god that all peoples (at least those who at a minimal level say they believe in God) can affirm? 

Martin Marty picks up on the relationship of Jesus and America, a conversation triggered by a 4th of July Hobby Lobby ad.  Until this point, I didn't know that Hobby Lobby was  a big Christian booster, but apparently they are -- and they like to link Jesus to America, sort of.  Anyway, Marty in his Monday essay lifts up the questions surrounding this relationship, and celebrates the fact that there is room to have this debate.  I invite your thoughts and comments!


Sightings 7/19/10

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:

Martin E. Marty's biography, current projects, publications, and contact information can be found at


In this month's Religion and Culture Web Forum ("The Primacy of Rhetoric"), Marty Center Senior Fellow (2009-10) W. David Hall addresses the centrality of rhetoric in the Western humanist tradition by engaging the work of Ernesto Grassi, whose commentary on the Renaissance, especially, diverged from standard Platonic models of interpretation to include arts such as rhetoric,

literature, and poetry. Of especial interest for Hall is Grassi's "retrieval of the humanist tradition" during this era and the possibilities that thorough understanding of such a retrieval opens more broadly in the fields of philosophy and religious studies. With invited responses from Andrew Hass (University of Stirling), Jeff Jay (University of Chicago), Santiago Pinon (University of Chicago),

Donald Phillip Verene (Emory University), and Glenn Whitehouse (Florida Gulf Coast University).


Sightings comes from the Martin Marty Center at the University of Chicago Divinity School.


Doug Sloan said…
From its beginning, the Good News has been apolitical and non-national. When pushed to choose between faith and empire, the way of the Good News has been to respond with non-violent defiance and refusal. Our faith life is not measured by how materially abundant or wealthy is our life and not by how much political or cultural influence we have. Our faith life in no way embodies, is connected to, or dependent upon or subservient to patriotic fervor or national loyalty or good citizenship. Our faith life is measured by how we attend to and improve the lives of others – by feeding them, quenching their thirst, clothing them, visiting them in prison, healing them, and welcoming them. Keep in mind that this is a deliberately incomplete list. It works in much the same way as when Jesus tells Peter to forgive, not 7 times, but 77 times – the point being that by the time you forgive someone 77 times, it has become, not an act that has been repeated 77 times, but a habit, a path, a journey, a way of life. My point being that by the time you develop the habit of feeding, quenching, clothing, healing, welcoming, and visiting prisons, you have created a new life complete with new values and new goals and new vision. Once you get to this point, you have discovered and claimed (not earned) and embodied your grace-given membership in the family of God, a membership exemplified by faith, love, and service.

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