On religion, George Will gets Ike wrong

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George Will has published an adaptation of the talk on religion and the American Republic he gave at Washington University’s Danforth Center last December, and while it may not be, in Peggy Noonan’s words, “kind of a masterpiece,” it’s certainly worth a read.

Will outs himself as a None, and argues — High Enlightenment Tory that he is — that religion is not necessary for good citizenship but does help democracy flourish. Likewise, he denies that religious belief is entailed in belief in “America’s distinctive democracy — a government with clear limits defined by the natural rights of the governed”; but he thinks that such natural rights will be “especially firmly grounded when they are grounded in religious doctrine.”

If the David Bartons of the world find this unacceptable, I’m sure Will could care less. His bottom line is that, when it comes to a healthy civil society, religious institutions serve a useful mediating purpose. I wouldn’t disagree.

The Trinity College graduate of the Class of 1962 does, however, stumble coming out of the gate, and because it’s a graceful version of a common stumble, I’d like to indulge in a little professorial correction.

After starting with a story about President Eisenhower fishing, golfing, and playing bridge on a national day of prayer, Will turns to the man’s most famous religious remark.

This was not Ike’s first foray onto the dark and bloody ground of the relationship between religion and American public life. Three days before Christmas in 1952, President-elect Eisenhower made a speech in which he said: “Our form of government has no sense unless it is founded in a deeply felt religious faith, and I don’t care what it is.” He received much ridicule from his cultured despisers for the last part of his statement — the professed indifference to the nature of the religious faith without which our government supposedly makes no sense. But it is the first part of his statement that deserves continuing attention.

Certainly many Americans — perhaps a majority — agree that democracy, or at least our democracy, which is based on a belief in natural rights, presupposes a religious faith. People who believe this cite, as Eisenhower did, the Declaration of Independence and its proposition that all of us are endowed by our Creator with certain unalienable rights.

Actually, the cultured despiser who first called attention to Ike’s “and I don’t care what it is” remark was Will Herberg, the Communist-turned-religionist who in his celebrated Protestant Catholic Jew (1955) singled it out not for reproach but for approval in pretty much the same way that Will approves of religion. To be sure, the remark is commonly sniffed at for epitomizing  civil religious indifference to actual religious doctrine. But here Will and most other commentators have been led astray by Herberg’s partial quotation.

As the biblical scholar Patrick Henry discovered after painstaking research in 1981, Ike was telling a story about the difficulty he once had explaining democracy to the Soviet general, Marshal Zhukov. “In other words,” he told his audience, “our form of government has no sense unless it is founded in a deeply felt religious faith, and I don’t care what it is. With us of course it is the Judeo-Christian concept but it must be a religion that all men are created equal. So what was the use of me talking to Zhukov about that. Religion, he had been taught, was the opiate of the people.”

Eisenhower did not, in other words, profess indifference to the nature of the religious faith without which our government supposedly makes no sense. He declared that there must be religious faith in the proposition that all men (people) are created equal. For people rooted in a religious tradition that subscribes to that proposition, democracy “has sense.” Their faith was a matter of indifference only in other respects.

Of course, the signers of the Declaration of Independence themselves held the proposition to be a self-evident truth, i.e. no religious faith necessary. Self-evident or not, what concerned Eisenhower was democracy’s need for belief in fundamental human equality — that all are so “endowed by their Creator,” as he said, “not by the accident of birth, not by the color of their skins or by anything else.”

At Trinity, Will is still remembered for publicly resigning from a fraternity that refused to admit blacks and Jews. Now, preoccupied as he is with belief in limited government, he fails to apprehend that that’s what Ike was talking about.

  • James Stagg

    Thank you, Professor Silk, for correcting Mr. Will, and, by inference, Ms. Noonan. Her enthusiastic blurb (blog) about Mr. Will’s address was somewhat “over the top” and not very critical of his premise; she scored a bit low on her usual good analysis..

    Perhaps Mr. Will did not do well in World History or Philosophy at Trinity either, or he could credit the great thinkers (all the way back to Greece) for the philosophical underpinnings of the education which produced the ideas of the Framers of the Declaration, Constitution, and Bill of Rights.

    Perhaps Mr. Will (and Ms. Noonan), as they progress through their mature years, will also progress in learning about God….the Creator, and the great gifts he has bestowed on us…….knowledge, understanding and fear of the Lord being some achievable goals.

    Thank you for your insight!



    Acts 2:41 So then, those who received his word were baptized; and there were added about three thousand souls. Acts 2:47….And the Lord was adding to their number day by day those who were being saved.

    All three thousand believed the apostle Peter’s message and were baptized in water. Then they were added to the Lord’s church by the Lord Himself. The Lord did not add the unsaved to His church. They had to believe and be baptized in water prior to being added to the body of Christ.

    1. Acts 2:22 Men of Israel, listen to these words: Jesus the Nazarene, a man attested to you by God with miracles and wonders and signs which God performed through Him in your midst, just as you yourselves know—

    All three thousand believed Jesus was a miracle worker.

    2. Acts 2:31-32 he looked ahead and spoke of the resurrection of the Christ, that He was neither abandoned to Hades, nor did His flesh suffer decay. 32 This Jesus God raised up again, to which we are all witnesses.

    All three thousand believed in the death, burial and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

    3. Acts 2:36 Therefore let all the house of Israel know for certain that God has made him both Lord and Christ—this Jesus whom you crucified.”

    All three thousand believed that Jesus was Lord and Christ.

    4. Acts 2:38 Peter said to them, “Repent, and each of you be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins; and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.

    All three thousand repented in order to have sins forgiven. (repentance meant that they made the commitment to turn from their unbelief and sinful lifestyle and turn toward God).

    All three thousand were baptized in water in order to have their sins forgiven.

    All three thousand received the indwelling gift of the Holy Spirit after they believed, repented, and were baptized in water.

    5. Acts 2:40 And with many other words he solemnly testified and kept on exhorting them, “Be saved from this perverse generation!”

    All three thousand were saved after they believed Peter’s message: They believed, repented, confessed, and were baptized in water. (Mark 16:16, John 3:16, Acts 3:19, Acts 2:38, Romans 10:9-10, Acts 8:35-38) THEN THEY WERE ADDED TO THE LORD’S CHURCH! (Acts 2:47)


    1.Peter did not preach that men were saved by grace alone.

    2.Peter did not preach that men were saved by faith only

    3.Peter did not preach that God had selected a few to be saved and that all others would go to hell.

    4. Peter did not preach that water baptism was not essential to salvation.

    5. Peter did not preach that Jesus was just one of many Saviors.

    6. Peter did not preach that once you were saved, that you could continue in a sinful lifestyle and still be saved.

    7. Peter did not preach that God did not have the power to give us an inerrant translation of the Scriptures.

    8. Peter did not preach that God would provide hundreds or thousands of different Christian denominations, and that they would teach different ways of being saved.

    9. Peter did preach that you had to speak in tongues as evidence that you were saved.

    AS BELIEVERS IN CHRIST, MEN SHOULD USE THE BIBLE AS THEIR GUIDE FOR SALVATION. Looking to man-made creed books, Bible commentaries, denominational statements of faith, and church catechisms, is looking in all the wrong places for the absolute truth!

    To read more blogs, google search: steve finnell a christian view or steve finnell blog

    Posted by Steve Finnell at 5:35 AM

  • Pingback: On religion, George Will gets Ike wrong | Iztopics()

  • Are you a Catholic, Mr Finnell? Sure sounds like it.

  • Dan

    I don’t think it’s Catholic so much as irrelevant.

    Also, for what it’s worth, Peter did not preach that you should go around spamming websites with poorly-formatted lists.