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In God We Trust: An Outdated Motto Or An Up-To-Date Hope? (Thanksgiving)

November 24, 1994 | First Presbyterian Church Orlando |

I have in my hand articles of our currency. Coins—there’s a penny, there’s a nickel, there’s a dime, a quarter, there’s a $1 bill; there’s a $5 bill. These articles from our United States currency have two things in common—1) they won’t buy very much in today’s economy, but 2) every single piece; every single article has inscribed on it the words: “In God We Trust.” It’s right there on the face of every coin. It’s right there on the back side of each of the bills. Those words “In God We Trust” are our nation’s motto. We know the words so well. Those words were inscribed for the first time on United States currency in the year 1864. However, the belief “In God We Trust” was current in this land long before it ever appeared on our currency. In fact, that basic belief was a central part of our heritage right from the very earliest moments of this nation’s existence. You see, those who founded this nation, had a hope and a dream. They longed for freedom. They wished to build a better life in a better way. They wished to build a new nation in a new land. And right from the very beginning, they believed that God was with them and that somehow God was in the midst of it all. That’s the way it’s been in this nation from its earliest moments, “In God We Trust.”

Maybe you’ve heard the story about the Kindergarten open house? The students were there, and the parents and other visitors came to see the classrooms and to visit with the teachers and the children. One little girl had as her responsibility during the Open House to hold up the map of the United States which she had painted. As she did so, she very proudly announced to all the visitors in the room: “This is a map of my country.” Someone in the crowd asked her: “And what is the name of your country?” Confidently, the 4-year old answered: “Tis of Thee. My country Tis of Thee.” Well, that’s a cute story, but it has a profound message within it. This country ’tis of Thee. This country ’tis of God. “In God We Trust.” It’s been that way from the very beginning.

I suppose that’s why I’m so drawn to a single verse from the first letter of Peter. Here Peter writes, and listen carefully: “As servants of God, live as free people, but do not use your freedom as a pretext for evil.” I think that’s just another way of saying: “In God We Trust.” And on the strength of that word from the word of God, I wish to suggest to you today that what has been true of this nation in the past can and should be equally true of this nation in its present and in its future. I am calling us as a nation to put our trust in God.

We can trust God in the struggles of our national life.

Permit me, please, for just a few moments to play out that theme by speaking a word or two about two great struggles in our national experience. First, permit me please to speak a word about the subject of public prayer, particularly in our schools. I know that this is a difficult, complex, even controversial issue. And yet, my beloved, I must ask you this question. Can we not find ways in this nation to be kind and loving and sensitive and encouraging of each other without throwing out the one element which has made and kept this nation great—religion in American public life. I keep remembering what Stephen Carter wrote. He said: “The first Amendment to our Constitution was written not to protect that state from religion, but to protect religion from the state.” That’s an incredibly important point for us to ponder. I view with growing concern, the discouragement of authentic expressions of religious devotion in the nation of which we are a part. I have been greatly helped in my understanding of this issue by a man who has been, over the years, a cherished friend. His name is Rabbi Leslie Sirtes of Arkansas. He survived the Nazi extermination of the Jews in eastern Europe, and emigrated to the United States, and when he came, he brought with him an incredibly expansive faith. He died a few years ago now, but not before he had delivered to me any number of heavy-duty lessons. I remember once in Pine Bluff, Arkansas, when he and I were asked to share responsibility for conducting the funeral of one of that city’s most prominent citizens. As we met together to prepare the service, I wondered how on earth we would ever make it work. And it was at that point that Rabbi Sirtes said to me: “If you, as a Christian, are asked to pray in the public domain before a diverse audience, I fully expect you to pray out of the tradition in which you stand. And I celebrate your right to pray that way. In fact, I would be severely disappointed if you did not pray In the name of Jesus.” “By the same standard”, he went on, “when I, as a Rabbi, am asked to pray in public before a diverse audience, I believe that it is my right to pray out of the tradition in which I stand. And I would hope and pray that you, my friend, would celebrate my right to do so.”

In that word of incredibly good sense, I found the ability to join with him, not only in leading that funeral, but in learning some much deeper lessons. You see, true appreciation for persons of other faiths does not dilute my own faith or my own commitment to it. It does not even prevent me from sharing lovingly and sensitively what I count to be the merits of my own faith tradition. But what it does do is it allows us all to acknowledge, affirm, and celebrate the transcendent connection which the human spirit demands and requires. That connection is so essential to humankind that no individual and no society can long survive without it. We may understand the connection from different perspectives, but that in no way prevents us from celebrating the fact that the connection exists.

Just a few years ago, John Paul Sartre, the French existentialist philosopher, on his deathbed lamented with these words: “My atheistic philosophy has failed me. Maybe there is indeed reason to believe in a transcendent God.” His individual insight is equally true for the nation. Another dollop of good sense has come from the writings of Kathleen Parker, a syndicated columnist whose works appear in our local paper. She and I have enjoyed a rich correspondence in recent years. She grew up in the Presbyterian Church. She wandered away from her faith for a period of years, and now, largely because of her role as wife and mother, she is returning to the fold. It shows in her writing. I ask you to listen to these words which appeared in our newspaper here last Friday:

“Doubtless in the next few weeks we’ll hear the usual church-state polemic as Congress considers a constitutional amendment to allow voluntary school prayer.
Doubtless, the flood of rhetoric will leave us confused and dazed, even if the amendment goes nowhere.
Doubtless, the essence of what really matters will be diluted by the verbal histrionics that pass for reasoned debate.
Amidst all this confusion, we might entertain this simple rhetorical imperative: Why Not?!
Why not give it a shot, just for the heck of it? In the face of rising statistics regarding teen pregnancy, adolescent murder, child-perpetrated armed robbery or rape, what have we got to lose?
Our separation of church and state? Says who?
The alleged mingling of church and state as a consequence of allowing school children to pray is an idiotic distortion by the Supreme Court of the intent of the American Constitution.
Who were those robed men anyway? The court’s 1962 ruling that school prayer violates separation of church and state may have been well-intentioned, even academically defensible.
But given that the court was made up of mere humans vulnerable to error and, yes, demagoguery, it may also be that the ruling was wrong.
If a country ever needed school prayer, it’s the U.S.A. IF children ever needed a moral tone to their day, it’s ours.
To be sure, school prayer isn’t going to turn our society around, but it may be a start. It’s a better beginning for our children than a frustrated teacher hoping she can compel unruly kids to sit down without getting shot.
Besides, on a strictly practical level, our children need it. We adults can be cynical about religion on our front porches or in our drawing rooms, as the case may be.
We can embrace atheism or nihilism or existentialism or whatever-ism as the mood hits us. But our children need a thread of hope to cling to. They need a world in which there are well-defined boundaries of right and wrong, where the tone of life is set with hope and with charity, not with fear and uncertainty.”

I know it is a terribly difficult issue to resolve, but I ask you again, in this nation, can we not find ways to lovingly, sensitively be encouraging of one another and to do so in such a way that we do not throw out the one element which has made and kept this nation great. I refer to the element of religion in our public life. Listen again to the word of Peter: “As servants of God, live as free people, but do not use your freedom as a pretext for evil.” I think that’s another way of saying: “In God we trust.” My beloved, that’s not some outdated motto, it’s an up-to-date hope!

Second, permit me please, to speak a word about the Vietnam War, and its role in our history.

Some months ago, my friend Bob Neel asked me to deliver the Veteran’s Day address at Woodlawn Cemetery. I did that just a few days back. But as I engaged in prayer and study and preparation for that address, I gained some insights which I believe came from the spirit of God, which I shared on that occasion. I have not shared those insights with you, the congregation of God’s people I so dearly love. I wish to share them with you now.

For a long time, for too long a time, for too too long a time, we in this nation, have failed to properly honor and remember the service and the sacrifice of our soldiers in the Vietnam War. I keep remembering what Vermont Royster once said. He said: “Non-violence works to bring peace and justice only when there is the existence of the conscience in those to whom these peaceful voices are addressed.” That, my beloved, is an incredibly important point for us to ponder. Non-violence does bring peace and justice, but only when there is a conscience to which an appeal can be made. We are aware, no doubt, of the incredible contributions and accomplishments rendered by Mahatma Ghandi in India in his non-violent approach. We celebrate the freedom he brought to the people of India, but we must remember that Ghandi succeeded because Ghandi knew that the conscience of the British people would never let them brutally end his non-violent rebellion. We are aware, no doubt, of the incredible good accomplished in this country by the non-violent approach of Martin Luther King, Jr. We celebrate the good, but we must remember that Martin Luther King succeeded because Martin Luther King knew that the conscience in the dominant white population of America would never permit them to stand unendingly against inequality and injustice. Non-violence works to bring peace and justice when there is a conscience to which an appeal can be made. When there is no such voice of conscience, non-violence cannot and does not work. Then, God help us, and God forgive us, war becomes the only way to counter, to contain, to control the forces of evil in this world. There was no voice of conscience speaking in Hitler’s Germany, and therefore, war was necessary. God help us all. There was no voice of conscience speaking in the Communist world, therefore non-violence could never have brought peace and justice to the earth. God help us all.

Our experience proves the point. The very moment that we removed our military presence from Southeast Asia, there was triggered a blood bath every bit as sickening and as expansive and as demonic as Hitler’s holocaust. Millions upon millions of people were slaughtered, and hundreds of thousands of others were sent plunging into the sea in order to save their lives. Many of those sisters and brothers now live in this free land.

Let me bring the truth home.

The great tragedy of the Vietnam War was not the sacrifice of our soldiers, but the failure of our nation’s leaders. And let us remember that that leadership cut across all political party lines. Remember what I said: “Non-violence works only when there is the voice of conscience.” Our national leaders were paralyzed by those who honestly believed that non-violence would bring peace and justice. But there was no voice of conscience to which to appeal. War, God forgive us, was inevitable. Does that mean that the sacrifice of our soldiers in Vietnam was in vain? Absolutely not!

You see, what appeared to be failure and defeat at one point in time, we now know, and history proves, was in fact a victory for all of humankind. Victory long delayed, but victory none the less. Understand me, please, it was Vietnam that stopped once and for all the inexorable spread of Communism in this world. Study the record for yourself. You will discover what is true. Beginning after the second World War, Communism began to spread across the face of this earth. That spread continued until Vietnam. In Vietnam, the spreading stopped, and then beginning in Afghanistan and following on a number of other fronts in a number of other ways, Communism fell into full retreat. Communism as a brutal military force and as a dehumanizing political presence began to crumble like Jericho’s walls after the trumpets. It has not been removed from the face of the earth just yet, but lo, its doom is sure. There is more freedom on the face of this earth today than perhaps at any time in all history, but certainly at any time in all of this century. And I submit to you that it was the sacrifice of our soldiers in Vietnam which gave rise to that freedom spirit which now has encircled the globe setting people free all over the face of this earth. And therefore, I believe it is high time that here in this nation we salute with Thanksgiving and with gratitude the incredible sacrifice of those who in Vietnam became the catalysts for peace and justice and freedom in this world.

Here is what is true. God takes what appears to be failure and defeat and uses it ultimately for His own purposes, and God wills freedom for all humankind. “As servants of God”, Peter writes, “live as free people, but do not use that freedom as a pretext for evil.”

In God we can trust.

Let me finish like this. Last June, the celebrations of the 50th anniversary of D-Day were brought by television into all of our homes. The nation was transfixed by it all. Again and again, we heard the stories of how faith and sacrifice combined to keep this nation free, and to keep the world inching its way toward freedom. Again and again we heard the words, we saw the visible reminders of what an incredibly powerful role religion played in that march to freedom. Roy Riviere shared with me what for him was the most moving moment of all. The television cameras, he said, scanned across the vast expanse of the English cemetery at Normandy where there are buried the British soldiers who died there in that effort toward freedom. And suddenly, the camera focused down on one marker in that cemetery. Inscribed on the stone was the soldier’s name, and then under it, inscribed these words: “The king called, and he answered. The king of kings called, and he answered.” I wonder how we would answer.

Two flags fly in this sanctuary. There is the Christian flag. It is dominated by the cross on which the Prince of Glory died for your sins and mine. And there is the American flag. Thousands upon thousands have died to give us that flag. I wonder if we still have in this nation today what it takes to keep both flags flying.

In God We Trust.

Some say it’s an old outdated motto that ought to be removed from our coins. I disagree. Instead, I believe it is an up to date hope, and it is wise counsel for us and for our nation.

In God We Trust.

It is written on our coins and on our currency. I pray it shall be written on our lives as well.

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