President Harry Truman gave a speech dedicating Westminster Presbyterian Church in a quiet residential part of Alexandria, Virginia, in November 1952.

March 27, 2018

Presidential Priestcraft

Almost every day I go for long walks, and on almost every walk, no matter how familiar the territory, I find new discoveries. On Sunday for perhaps the 20th time I walked by Westminster Presbyterian Church in a quiet residential part of Alexandria, Virginia. And for the first time I noticed the cornerstone recalling President Harry Truman had dedicated the church in November 1952. So I quickly found online both text and video of his speech there.

Why would Truman lay the cornerstone of an obscure suburban church? His longtime friend and presidential aide, General Harry Vaughn, was an elder there. Interestingly, Vaughn also facilitated the 1946 “Iron Curtain” speech Winston Churchill gave at Vaughn’s alma mater in Fulton, Missouri, Westminster College.

According to his 1981 obituary, Vaughn spent much of his nearly 30 years of retirement volunteering at Westminster Church. He and Truman first met in the army during WWI. Later Vaughn would be criticized as one of Truman’s presidential, poker-playing cronies. Vaughn’s accepting gifts from lobbyists besmirched Truman’s presidency. Republicans in 1952 promised to cleanse Washington of the “crooks and the Communists.” Politics hasn’t changed very much.

Eisenhower and the GOP had just won the election, and the nation faced intimidating challenges, with gridlock in the Korean War amid an icy global Cold War that threatened nuclear catastrophe. Yet Truman in his church dedication speech doesn’t sound bitter or alarmist. Instead he hopefully speaks of the nation’s growth, as reflected in the new neighborhood surrounding Westminster Presbyterian. Countryside had become suburbs, there and across America. Just up the street, the mother church of Methodism in Alexandria, having deconstructed its historic church downtown, where its congregation was dying, had rebuilt a new structure partly from old materials, to reach the families filling new suburban homes. Westminster Church was itself a fairly new congregation, and Vaughn, who lived nearby, apparently was a member from the start.

Truman was Baptist, though he specified he was the type who imbibed, danced and played cards. In his speech at Westminster Church he omitted those details but recalled he had met his future wife at a Presbyterian Sunday school. He noted Presbyterian and Baptist churches were now more numerous in Alexandria thanks to growth. And he recalled the “democratic nature of our Government owes much to the democratic forms and the democratic experience of the Presbyterian church.” The speech wonderfully connects America’s churches with its spiritual and democratic vitality. Here are some highlights:

There are some who foolishly say that religion is dead or dying in this country. They have not consulted the statistics. The facts are that the churches, and the church memberships, are growing. Perhaps this growth is not rapid enough–perhaps it is not as great as we might wish. Real Christians can never be satisfied with the progress of their faith. But growth there is–and vitality, and widening influence.

It is just as important for the future of this country that the churches keep pace with our present expansion as it was for our forefathers to carry their faith with them when they laid the foundations of this great Nation. Democracy is first and foremost a spiritual force. It is built upon a spiritual basis–and on a belief in God and an observance of moral principles. And in the long run only the church can provide that basis. Our founders knew this truth–and we will neglect it at our peril.

Observing that America’s government “rests on a spiritual foundation,” Truman warned:

We must not congratulate ourselves too much upon the past, or upon the purely physical growth of our churches in the present. Our churches must keep pace not only with the changes in our physical development, but also, and more importantly, with the changes of social problems. Our churches must not become a place to hide from the facts of the world about us, nor a mere badge of social respectability. Too often our churches have been blind to their most important function, which is to bring about the application of religious principles to our daily lives and in our work. We must all wage a ceaseless war against injustice in our society. The churches in particular are a force which should fight for brotherhood, and decency, and better lives for all our people.

Truman also tied America’s churches to its global security and prestige:

In foreign affairs, as well as in our domestic affairs, the churches should hold up the standard and point the way. The only hope of mankind for enduring peace lies in the realm of the spiritual. The teachings of the Christian faith recognize the worth of every human soul before Almighty God. The teachings of the Christian faith are a sure defense against the godlessness and the brutality of ideologies which deny the value of the individual. We must try to find ways to carry these spiritual concepts into the field of world relations.

Sounding like the Baptist that he was, Truman implored that “by following the path of justice and righteousness we can turn back the dark forces that seek to plunge the earth again into savagery.” And he asserted:

It is from a strong and vital church–from the strength and vitality of all our churches–that government must draw its vision. In the teachings of our Savior there is no room for bigotry, for discrimination, for the embittered struggle of class against class, or for the hostilities of nation against nation. St. Paul, in writing to the early church at Colosse, said, “Here there cannot be Greek and Jew, circumcised and uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave, freeman, but Christ is all, and in all.”

The churches must animate the nation’s struggle for morality, purpose, justice and righteousness, Truman insisted. His brief but meaningful speech on a chilly November Sunday at Westminster Presbyterian Church illustrated the priestly role assigned to the President in American civil religion. We have no state church or monarch, so it is the federal chief executive, heir to George Washington, who fills this role. He reminds us of our democratic civil and spiritual duties before God. Our republic is suffused with transcendent purpose thanks to this application of broadly inclusive biblical civil religion. Presidents since Washington have performed the rites of this tradition.

To be effective and faithful, magistrates like the President, and the churches, must together summon the nation to “ceaseless war against injustice in our society” and “fight for brotherhood, and decency, and better lives for all our people.” This struggle, as Truman said, is feckless without God.

My unplanned Sunday walk by Westminster Presbyterian Church, noticing mention of Truman, was a much needed spiritual and historical lesson in the civil and spiritual forces that together sustain American democracy. Truman’s words in 1952, shared in far more challenging times than our own, are no less important today.

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One Response to Presidential Priestcraft

  1. Donald says:

    Perhaps the international threats aren’t as obvious now as they once were, but they are just as deadly and the loss of the nation’s moral and spiritual center is indeed a profound risk to our nation’s security. The international drug cartels has brought disease and social havoc to our cities. Unbridled illegal immigration brings increased crime and a tolerance for disrespecting law is supported by Legacy denominations. We face an all-out assault on our civil rights, particularly freedom of speech & religion, with Christianity now being the one religion it is safe to mock in the public square and through the national media. These things and the coarsening of our public discourse is the direct result of the nation’s loss of our spiritual and moral foundation…and the Legacy denominations have led the charge.

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