God, or at least an evocation of the Almighty, was there in the very beginning. In November 1800, on his second night in the unfinished White House, in a letter to Abigail, President John Adams wrote words that are now carved in the State Dining Room: “I pray Heaven to bestow the best of Blessings on this House and all that shall hereafter inhabit it. May none but honest and wise Men ever rule under this roof.” Adams’ prayer may not always have been answered—we have had our unwise presidents, and more than a few who had ambivalent relationships with honesty—but the sentiments he expressed to his wife are at the heart of the American tradition of what Benjamin Franklin called “public religion.” From the Continental Congress’ opening with a prayer delivered—after some debate, naturally—by an Episcopal priest to the field of 2008 presidential hopefuls courting of devout voters, American public life has always been marked by allusions to God, and presidents have always been the alluders-in-chief. There is, as the author of Ecclesiastes wrote, no thing new under the sun, and those who believe George W. Bush has taken religious rhetoric to a new level are wrong. On this Presidents’ Day, it is worth pausing for a just a moment to consider the history of religious references and the presidency—an act of consideration that I hope helps us keep faith in the public square in proper perspective. For the wonderful thing about American public religion—or what Lincoln called our “political religion”—is that its creed is liberty and the rule of law, not coercion or forced belief or a link between one’s civil and religious lives. George Washington promised that the government would “give to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance,” a promise that I think is as fundamental to America as the promises of the Declaration of Independence. Liberty and faith, like reason and faith, need not be mutually exclusive. In fact, there is a strong theological argument for freedom of (and from) religion: If God himself did not compel obedience or love, then who are men to try? As Robert Ingersoll, the great 19th century agnostic, once said, it is a poor religion that requires a musket to enforce belief. Yet, as Franklin remarked, religion is an intrinsic human impulse: “There is in all men something like a natural principle which inclines them to devotion or the worship of some unseen power.” And John Adams took the point into the political realm: “Religion has and always will govern mankind,” he wrote in 1818. “Man is constitutionally, essentially and unchangeably a religious animal. Neither philosophers nor politicians can ever govern him in any other way.” Which raises a practical question on this Presidents’ Day: Are presidential evocations of God religious or political, sincere or cynical? It is difficult to say, for no one can know what is truly in another’s heart. But I would argue that, on balance, American presidents have called on the God of public religion with conviction, in the hope that good things would come of the endeavor. There are exceptions, of course: the use of biblical or theological reasoning to sanction slavery or the treatment of women or Native Americans stands as a perennial reminder of the evil ends religion can sometimes serve. On the whole, though, when Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation because he had struck a bargain with his “Maker” to do so if the Union prevailed at Antietam, or when TR said the true gospel lay in one’s works, not just one’s words, or when FDR prayed for victory over the forces of tyranny, or when LBJ summoned divine blessing for civil rights legislation, they were deploying religious imagery in noble causes. But to think one’s course is God’s course is fraught. As Lincoln once said, he did not know if God was on the Union’s side; he just hoped the Union was on God’s side. In truth, presidents, no more or no less than anyone else, are at work in a fallen world, moving through twilight, struggling to find a way forward amid what George Eliot once called “dim lights and tangled circumstance.” When you hear a president invoke God, then, always listen carefully to the context. Be alarmed if the president is saying that a particular political path is, in his view, ordained by God; be at peace if the president is saying that he is praying for God’s blessing and guidance in a complex world. The former is hubristic and dangerous; the latter humble and wise. Aristotle once said that courage was the most important virtue, for it guaranteed all the others; I would argue that, in religious terms, humility is the most significant, for it enables faillble human beings, rulers and ruled alike, to see things in their proper measure. John Adams, who wrote the early White House prayer, saw the United States, as many of his successors did, as an eternal work in progress—a glorious work, but an unfinished one: “I always considered the settlement of America with reverence and wonder, as the opening of a grand scene and design of providence, for the illumination of the ignorant and the emancipation of the slavish part of mankind.” We are right to be reverent about our nation—and we are obligated to be respectful of the rights of others to do as they please, within the spirit of the democracy whose leaders we celebrate today. On Faith moderator Jon Meacham was editor of Newsweek. This article was originally published on 02/18/2007.