Thou shalt not take the name of the Lord thy God in vain: for the Lord will not hold him guiltless that shall take the name of the Lord his God in vain. (Ex 20:7)
Cursing in the name of God has often been thought in modern times to be the exclusive way to sin against the second commandment. If you were to read an examination of conscience, you might find some other ways that tend to be uncommon (e.g. blasphemy, lying during a confession, etc.). In pre-Christian days, the Hebrews made it very easy to keep this commandment – never utter His name at all. Nowadays, we can see the wisdom of that prohibition, as variants of God’s name are used in the most casual way. But let me propose another means of breaking this commandment that I think is quite common, but often overlooked. What if we were to use God’s name for our own manipulative purposes?
Obvious examples of this are clear; televangelists whose obvious motive is to manipulate their preaching into cash, religious charities that front for other purposes, and those who invoke God to justify their own sinful behavior. But I think we are all are more susceptible to this sin than we may realize. As fallen man, we tend to turn creation upside down and create God in an image suitable to our sensibilities. That way, we can get along with him much better. This temptation is all the more enticing when it comes to politics.
The Founding Fathers of the United States invoked God, declaring it a “right” granted by God to declare independence.
"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 to 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."
While our Founding Fathers were not very Catholic (only one of the 56 signers of the Declaration of Independence was openly Catholic), they were most certainly steeped in the Natural Law, which owes it’s heritage to pre-Enlightenment Era Catholic thought, even as some of its practitioners often considered the Church it’s greatest foe. The human right to be governed in such a way is truly “self-evident”, and it can certainly be reasoned that war may be necessary to achieve such governance. But then they took it one step further, suggesting that it was a God-given “duty” to sever the tyranny of the English crown.
"Prudence, indeed, will dictate that governments long established should not be changed for light and transient causes; and accordingly all experience hath shown that mankind are more disposed to suffer, while evils are sufferable, than to right themselves by abolishing the forms to which they are accustomed. But when a long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing invariably the same object evinces a design to reduce them under absolute despotism, it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such government, and to provide new guards for their future security. --Such has been the patient sufferance of these colonies; and such is now the necessity which constrains them to alter their former systems of government."
And the grievances were listed – all of them true, but most were exaggerated. One could reasonably conclude that “Prudence” had not yet run the course. But the Founders took liberty at this point to declare it their duty to change the government. To believe that was fine – but it was still a debatable point that they essentially declared to be “self-evident”. To declare it God’s expectation that they take up all means necessary to achieve independence is shaky ground. A few humble words, such as, “We believe that such has been the patient sufferance,” would go a long way toward admitting the proper relationship between the Creator and the created.
Nit-picky? Well, lay mystagogues tend to be that way. Even when it comes to opposing brilliant and esteemed icons. But one might think, “That’s probably what they meant.” To that, I reply, “This document was heavily scrutinized and painstakingly drafted. I’m confident they meant what they wrote.”
Speaking of brilliant and esteemed icons, let’s fast-forward to 1862. Abraham Lincoln exemplifies how American presidents have historically invoked the name of God.
"The will of God prevails. In great contests each party claims to act in accordance with the will of God. Both may be, and one must be, wrong. God cannot be for and against the same thing at the same time. In the present civil war it is quite possible that God's purpose is something different from the purpose of either party - and yet the human instrumentalities, working just as they do, are of the best adaptation to effect His purpose.”
Unassuming. Completely lacking in self-serving presumption. Humble. Acknowledging His sovereignty, and asking His blessing. This is the standard, and presidents have generally held to that.
Now let me bring forward the much maligned George W. Bush, in what I consider his greatest speech, given during the National Day of Prayer and Remembrance. He ended his speech with this, very much in line with Lincoln.
“On this national day of prayer and remembrance, we ask almighty God to watch over our nation, and grant us patience and resolve in all that is to come. We pray that He will comfort and console those who now walk in sorrow. We thank Him for each life we now must mourn, and the promise of a life to come.
As we have been assured, neither death nor life, nor angels nor principalities nor powers, nor things present nor things to come, nor height nor depth, can separate us from God’s love. May He bless the souls of the departed. May He comfort our own. And may He always guide our country.
God bless America.”
This was a humble, comforting reminder of who we are, at a time when the nation truly needed that reminder. This ending was a walk-off grand slam if there ever was one. I hesitate to point out, though, the line that preceded this closure, one which would echo with resilience through his first term as president.
“And the commitment of our fathers is now the calling of our time.”
We have a case of presumption. Veiled as it is, the implication is undeniable. According to President Bush, America was called to fight and defeat the ideology of Islamic terror and deliver the torch of freedom to those repressed by the same.
Now let me be clear. I’m not claiming that Bush was wrong. In fact, just the opposite. To accomplish the defeat of this deadly ideology and bring freedom to oppressed people would indeed be moral, and more importantly charitable. It is not out of line to believe that this is what God called our nation to do.
And it is also notable that other presidents in the past seemed to have shared similar ideals for America (Andrew Jackson, James K. Polk, Woodrow Wilson, and John F. Kennedy, just to name a few), so Bush isn’t unique in his outlook. All of the listed men had a faith in God, and believed in His hand guiding the actions of the nation. But I haven’t found any of them stating in public a particular divine calling for a specific endeavor.
Now considering both Bush and the Founding Fathers, both made and stated presumptions on God’s will for a specific course of action. In both cases, I agree with their presumption. In both cases, assuming they believed what they stated, they certainly did not break the second commandment. My problem is that, in both cases, as statesmen, it would be preferable to leave such assumptions unsaid. This is a bad precedent. It opens a can of worms to any armchair theologian in politics.
In fact, one of those armchair theologians has risen to the oval office. We are to believe now that God is calling Obama to have the federal government take over our health care. “We are God's partners in matters of life and death,” he proclaimed to some clerical supporters. And then, despite the fact that he is lying with impunity, he has the audacity of accusing those trying to set the record straight of “bearing false witness.”
Now it is absolutely necessary that religious and lay mytagogues walk on this shaky ground of announcing God’s will from time to time. We need that. For example, on the issue of abortion – there is no debate on the issue itself. Abortion is evil, no ifs, ands, or buts. What to do about it, though, is not a matter of dogma. It’s a matter of prudence. This is where we need leaders who stand up and preach the need for a specific course of action, to the point of declaring the opposite course of action a sin. Specifically in regards to health care, our bishops have repeatedly stated that universal access to health care is a human right and a Christian obligation. We need this kind of guidance from people who know God well. We need it from our Pope, our bishops, our priests, our families, and our friends. We don’t need it from our President, who isn’t (unfortunately) elected on the basis of how well he knows God.
Our chief statesman should invoke the name of God often, privately and publicly. But such an invocation must be done humbly, acknowledging His majesty, and asking His divine assistance. From our chief statesman, it should never be done with presumption. A can of worms has been open, and is now being served by a man who, either sincerely or insincerely, appears to be using God’s name for his own wrongful designs.
Sorry to be a petty hair-splitter, but I do believe that sometimes those hairs make a noticeable difference.
Update - Looks like I'm not the only one to notice that President Obama was calling the Bishops liars. Deal W. Hudson at InsideCatholic has a post on it. He rhetorically asks, "How stupid does Obama and his advisors think we are?" I've been asking the same question since I saw Obama's first stump speech in 2007.