The American Religion

Longtime readers of these posts know that I have long been a member of a men’s book club in Connecticut. More recently, along with some friends who live near my primary home in one of New York City’s suburbs, I have started a second, similar group. The first meeting of the newer group was just a few nights ago; the book we discussed was Lincoln at Gettysburg – The Words That Remade America by Garry Wills.

It’s a worthwhile book – to begin with, it draws our attentions back to the Gettysburg Address, surely one of the greatest speeches ever given. If, like yours truly, you had largely forgotten the genius of Lincoln’s words, you can reread them here ( In a mere 272 words, Lincoln expressed truths more profound than most of us will say over our lifetimes.

Wills does a magisterial job of explaining the context and contents of the Address. His book won the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Critics Circle Award. Even so, in his core thesis, I think he missed the mark.

Wills’s thesis is that the Gettysburg Address forever changed the Constitution by harkening back to the universal ideals expressed in the Preamble to the Declaration of Independence. The Declaration had asserted that “all men are created equal” whereas the Constitution had betrayed that principle by allowing the continuance of slavery. In simple terms, Wills believes that after the Gettysburg Address, and as a result of it, slavery would never again be ok, and all citizens would be understood to be entitled to the equal protection of the laws.

In my view, Wills is almost right, but what he misses is as important as what he asserts. He’s almost right insofar as the Civil War and the Emancipation Proclamation ended slavery and ushered in the 14th Amendment; they also changed the way that Americans thought about citizenship and the federal government’s role in American life. (One telling example of the former, cited by Wills: before the Civil War people would customarily say “the United States are…” and after they would say “the United States is…”). He is also right that Lincoln’s brilliant Address gave Americans a unifying – and lasting – way to think about both that terrible conflict and our nation’s controlling ethos.

What I think Wills got wrong is that Lincoln’s words didn’t change the Constitution – only Amendments (or an improperly willful Supreme Court) can do that; instead, they brought what can best be described as the American religion back into focus, and expanded it. The Gettysburg Address isn’t so much a speech as it is a prayer – and the religion in which Lincoln was acting as high priest was the set of ideals written by Jefferson to help inspire and give shape to the American Revolution.

But Jefferson hadn’t meant that all people were created equal: he wrote “men” and never dreamed that that term would or should encompass either the slaves he owned or women. He had expressed a principle far more universal, and more inspiring, than even he understood. As Martin Luther King later wrote, the Declaration wasn’t a statement of fact, it was a promissory note.

A promissory note of universal appeal. A promissory note that could unite not only rebellious American colonials, but people from around the world, many of whom would come to this country to escape the caste systems of their native lands and enjoy the liberties offered here. A promissory note that would – as a fuller understanding of its implications matured over time – become the beating heart of this country’s belief system.


The Declaration’s great words had both defined America and inspired the world. They were, however, both literally revolutionary and … actually false when written: it was anything but self-evident to people around the world that all people were created equal. Almost all countries had inherited caste systems.

Indeed, in the midst of our book club discussion, the British-born member of our group said he had always been mystified by those words: equal in what sense? Clearly not in individual capabilities or in wealth.

My answer to my British-born friend would be: not equal in capabilities or outcomes (the assertion of the former of which would be obviously false and the latter require tyranny), but equally beloved of God, and therefore equal in unalienable rights to liberty. As with the core principles of any religion, this assertion was explicicitly dependent on a belief in God (though not necessarily a Christian God); without such a belief, the notion of unalienable, because Creator-given, rights would be nonsense.

It’s a statement of faith.


What Lincoln achieved through the Gettysburg Address is far bigger than I can capture here; but to me the most important part of his achievement was in harkening back to the ideals of equality and liberty as first principles. Slavery, as has been widely remarked, had been this nation’s original sin – a sin against our own ideals as they had been expressed in the Declaration. By November, 1863, those ideals were much more fully understood than they had been when they were written in July, 1776. The ideals of individual liberty and equality were re-expressed by Lincoln, elevated by a new, broader understanding of their meaning and reconsecrated with the blood of a terrible war.

The ideals expressed in the Declaration, as enlarged and reconsecrated by Lincoln (and as written into the Constitution a few years later through the 14th amendment, and much later enlarged again through the 19th amendment and, yet more decades later, strengthened through the Civil Rights Acts) are the American religion – the bond, ultimately dependent on a belief in God, that both brings us together as a nation and inspires all. (Or almost all, anyway.) Our catechism goes as follows:

“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. — That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, — That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness.”

The Constitution is something different – it is, of necessity, imperfect, as we are. It’s a compact, subject to regular renegotiation as factions wax and wane, but with protections to liberty as hard-wired as the Founders and their great successors could make them. The Constitution is to the Declaration as the church – any church or other house of worship – is to the ideals it purports to put into effect.

Lincoln didn’t change our Constitution at Gettysburg – he gave voice to a changing understanding of our own ideals.


M.H. Johnston

2 comments to The American Religion

  • DP  says:

    Excellent and stirring post.

  • DH  says:

    Excellent post, thanks.

    Positing equality of creation as “self-evident” is radical and beautiful indeed.

    I have shared with a few friends (all under 30), the American religion needs good prophets right now.

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