"Under God"¯Mystic Chords

The phrase "this nation, under God" has rung in the American ear and haunted the American imagination for now 230 years, ever since July 2, 1776.

It was ringing in the ear of Abraham Lincoln fourscore and seven years after 1776, on the bloody field at Gettysburg, when Lincoln paired "the new birth of liberty" won by that suffering with liberty’s first birth, for which the Liberty Bell in Philadelphia clanged so joyously it broke.

It is almost certain that Lincoln learned these ringing words from reading about Washington in the then almost universally cherished Life of Washington by Parson Weems.

But some scholars believe that Lincoln read them directly from General Washington’s General Orders to the Continental Army, as Lincoln pondered those orders in connection with his own new duties in the Civil War.

Here are the orders Washington gave his troops on July 2, the day on which independence was voted but before the Declaration was announced to the whole world on July 4:

"The time is now near at hand which must probably determine, whether Americans are to be, Freemen, or Slaves; whether they are to have any property they can call their own; whether their Houses, and Farms, are to be pillaged and destroyed, and they consigned to a State of Wretchedness from which no human efforts will probably deliver them. The fate of unborn Millions will now depend, under God, on the Courage and Conduct of this army.

"Our cruel and unrelenting Enemy leaves us no choice but a brave resistance, or the most abject submission; this is all we can expect.

"We have therefore to resolve to conquer or die: Our own Country’s Honor, all call upon us for a vigorous and manly exertion, and if we now shamefully fail, we shall become infamous to the whole world.

"Let us therefore rely upon the goodness of the Cause, and the aid of the supreme Being, in whose hands Victory is, to animate and encourage us to great and noble Actions.

"The Eyes of all our Countrymen are now upon us, and we shall have their blessings, and praises, if happily we are the instruments of saving them from the Tyranny meditated against them. Let us therefore animate and encourage each other, and shew the whole world, that a Freeman contending for Liberty on his own ground is superior to any slavish mercenary on earth."

Again, on July 9, when a copy of the Declaration was at last available, Washington ordered all his men into parade-ground rank, to hear the Declaration somberly read aloud:

"The General hopes this important Event will serve as a fresh incentive to every officer, and soldier, to act with Fidelity and Courage, as knowing that now the peace and safety of his Country depends (under God) solely on the success of our arms."

These two General Orders, for July 2, 1776, and July 9, 1776, echo like mystic chords in Lincoln’s words at Gettysburg. For Lincoln seemed to believe it would be very odd, indeed, if the first birth of freedom was achieved "with a firm reliance on the protection of Divine Providence," and "under God," while "a new birth of freedom," wrested from "the last full measure of devotion" at Gettysburg, did not also begin "under God." And so Lincoln, too, followed Washington in picking up the echo:

" . . . That this nation under God shall have a new birth of freedom, and that government of the people, by the people, for the people shall not perish from the earth."

Lincoln reaffirmed this faith in God’s judgments as "true and righteous" in his magnificent Second Inaugural.

And Washington in his letter to the Hebrew Congregation of Savannah, after he became president, reminded the nation that "the same wonder-working Deity" whose name "is Jehovah" who had rescued the Israelites from Egypt was active in 1776 in "establishing these United States as an independent nation."

To understand the public religion of America from its beginnings until now, it is essential to study the language, the conceptual structure, and the presuppositions about world order that quietly and "on deep background" formed the minds of Washington, Lincoln, and all successful leaders who have been able to touch most deeply the soul of the American people.

This same public religion, which is accessible to atheists and agnostics in their own fashion, should always echo in the minds of children, as in grown men and women, so that the spirit of liberty may thrive forever, beyond the power of any Caesar to add or to subtract.

(Click here to email the authors about this item. Michael Novak and Jana Novak have, most recently, published together Washington’s God (Basic Books). Michael Novak holds the George Frederick Jewett Chair in Religion and Public Policy at the American Enterprise Institute, and is a member of the editorial board of First Things .)


In addition to which :

Father Richard John Neuhaus ventures into the Upper West Side of Manhattan on Wednesday, July 5, for a talk and book signing at Barnes & Noble. That is at 2289 Broadway at 82nd Street, beginning at 7pm. The book is Catholic Matters: Confusion, Controversy, and the Splendor of Truth . He says he would be pleased to see you there. For information, call 212 362-8835.


In “Dechristianizing America,” Richard John Neuhaus examines the curious and complex ways in which analysts of American life—mainly, but not only Jewish analysts—seem determined to ignore the confusedly Christian character of this society. This reflection in the June/July issue of First Things touches on subjects of long-standing controversy that cannot be ignored in trying to understand how our public discourse contributes to our misunderstanding of who we are. Isn’t it time for you to subscribe to First Things ?

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