Address to the Washington Pilgrimage of American Churchmen

Harry S. Truman

National City Christian Church

Washington, DC

September 28, 1951

Mr. Chairman, Dr. Pruden, my friends:

I am happy to have the privilege of speaking to this meeting of the Washington Pilgrimage of American Churchmen. You have come to the Nation’s Capital to visit its monuments and to look at the basic documents on which our Government was founded. Many people come to Washington to do these things, but you have come here for a special purpose. You have come here to emphasize the fact that this Nation was founded on religious principles.

You will see, as you make your rounds, that this Nation was established by men who believed in God. You will see that our Founding Fathers believed that God created this Nation. And I believe it, too. They believed that God was our strength in time of peril and the source of all our blessings.

You will see the evidence of this deep religious faith on every hand.

If we go back to the Declaration of Independence, we notice that it was drawn up by men who believed that God the Creator had made all men equal and had given them certain rights which no man could take away from them. In beginning their great enterprise, the signers of the Declaration of Independence entrusted themselves to the protection of divine providence.

To our forefathers it seemed something of a miracle that this Nation was able to go through the agonies of the American Revolution and emerge triumphant. They saw, in our successful struggle for independence, the working of God’s hand. In his first inaugural address, George Washington said, “No people can be bound to acknowledge and adore the invisible hand, which conducts the affairs of men, more than the people of the United States.”

Another fact which you will notice in the course of your pilgrimage is that the makers of our Constitution believed in religious toleration. Theirs was the highest type of religion, forbidding the use of coercion or force in matters of mind and spirit. Religious freedom was a part of their religious faith. And they received that from Roger Williams, a Baptist, from William Penn, a Quaker, and from Lord Baltimore, a Catholic. That’s the reason for our constitutional approach to religious freedom.

It is said that when Benjamin Franklin left the Constitutional Convention he was asked, “What have you given us?” He answered, “A republic, if you can keep it.” Millions of Americans since then have believed that the keeping of our Republic depends upon keeping the deep religious convictions on which it was founded. From the worship and teachings of the synagogues and churches of our land, have come a moral integrity, a concern for justice and human welfare, a sense of human equality, a love of human freedom, and a practice of brotherhood which are necessary to the life of our national institutions.

It is fitting and proper that at this time of international peril and uncertainty we should look back to those beginnings and rededicate ourselves to those ideals.

It is not enough, however, simply to look back. It is not enough to congratulate our selves upon the religious spirit of our forebears. We must ask ourselves if we truly believe the things which they believed. We must examine our conduct to see whether we are carrying out in our daily lives the ideals we profess.

This is not easy. Our religious heritage imposes great obligations upon us. It does not permit us to be self-satisfied and complacent. Indeed, if we accept the faith which has been handed down to us, our task as a Nation is much more difficult. We cannot be satisfied with things as they are. We must always be striving to live up to our beliefs and to make things better in accordance with the divine commandments.

The people of Israel, you will remember, did not, because of their covenant with God, have an easier time than other nations. Their standards were higher than those of other nations and the judgment upon them and their shortcomings was more terrible. A religious heritage, such as ours, is not a comfortable thing to live with. It does not mean that we are more virtuous than other people. Instead, it means that we have less excuse for doing the wrong thing—because we are taught right from wrong.

Our religious heritage, in my opinion, imposes great responsibilities upon us as we face the problems of today.

It means first of all that we must constantly strive for social justice in the life of this Republic. It means that we must fight against special privilege, against injustice to those of low income, and against the denial of opportunity, against discrimination based upon race, creed, or national origin.

Our religious heritage also means that we must struggle to maintain our civil liberties. No nation which hopes to live by the law of God can afford to suppress dissent and criticism. You may remember that Israel persecuted the prophets. The prophets had unpleasant things to say about what was going on in ancient Israel. They criticized social injustices and the wasteful luxury of the privileged few. They criticized the way in which the ancient Hebrews had turned away from true religious principles. They said that Israel would be punished for its misdeeds. The prophets were not popular, and the kings and the priests of Israel tried to deny them freedom of speech. But the prophets were right, and Israel was punished as the prophets had said it would be.

We must always keep the way open for self-criticism. We must not stop up the mouths of those who are saying unpopular things. We must preserve the Bill of Rights—which, in my opinion, is the most important part of the Constitution—so that the voice of protest and dissent may always be heard. We must not try to destroy people by fear and slander, because if we do, we shall weaken the moral fiber of our own country.

Another great lesson which our religious heritage has for us today is that we must not be led astray by self-righteousness. We must remember that the test of our religious principles lies not just in what we say, not only in our prayers, or even in living blameless personal lives—but in what we do for others.

I am going to repeat that, because I think it is of vital importance to this meeting. We must remember that the test of our religious principles lies not just in what we say, not only in our prayers, not even in living blameless personal lives—but in what we do for others.

It is all too easy for churchgoing people to be satisfied with a superficial standard of morals. It is all too easy to sit in judgment on the shortcomings of others. It is all too easy to feel morally superior because we go to church and profess to follow the faith of our fathers.

We must remember that in his ministry on earth, Jesus delivered His strongest condemnation against those who were superficially and publicly good. The scribes and the Pharisees He attacked were the respectable people of his day. They were the leaders of the community who set the standards for others. To them He said “Thou hypocrite, first cast out the beam out of thine own eye, and then shalt thou see clearly to cast out the mote out of thy brother’s eye.”

“Thou hypocrite, first cast out the beam out of thine own eye, and then shalt thou see clearly to cast out the mote out of thy brother’s eye.” Ah, would that we could live by that!

Self-interest can blind us today, just as it blinded the scribes and Pharisees of biblical times. We must always be on our guard against this danger.

If we are to respond to our religious heritage, we must be guided by the principle of charity—charity in the biblical sense of love for one’s fellow man. This is the greatest virtue, without which other virtues are of little worth.

We must work for morality in public life and in private life. You can’t make an honest man by law. He has to be raised by the rules of the 20th chapter of Exodus, and the Sermon on the Mount, if he has the right moral fiber to become an ethical public or private citizen.

We must have high standards of personal conduct. But even if we do all these things, it is still not enough. The final question that will be asked of us, as individuals and as a society, is “What have we done for our fellow man ?” What have we done to ease his burdens, to give him greater opportunity, to help him in time of trouble, and to make the world a better place for him to live in? For unless we can answer those questions, we will not have carried out in our lives the religious heritage which has come to us from our forebears.

Today, our problem is not just to preserve our religious heritage in our own lives and our own country. Our problem is a greater one. It is to preserve a world civilization in which man’s belief in God can survive. Only in such a world can our own Nation follow its basic traditions, and realize the promise of a better life for all our citizens.

Today, the whole human enterprise is in danger—and serious danger. On the one hand, we have to resist the expansion of a power that is hostile to all we believe in. It is a power that denies the rule of law, the value of the individual, and belief in God. It is a power which has become militant and aggressive, using the weapons of deceit and subversion as well as military might.

On the other hand, we must do all we can to prevent the outbreak of another world war. Such a war, using modern instruments of destruction, would be more terrible than anything the world has ever experienced. It would make a battleground of the crowded and complex cities of the modern world. It might well shatter the whole economic and social system, and plunge mankind back into barbarism.

This is the great problem we must meet. We cannot yield to Soviet communism, without betraying the ideals we live for. We cannot have another world war without jeopardizing our civilization.

In this perilous strait, our greatest source of strength, our greatest hope of victory, lies in the God we acknowledge as the ruler of us all. We turn to faith in Him to give us the strength and the wisdom to carry out His will. We ask Him to lead us out of the dangers of this present time into the paths of peace.

In this crisis of human affairs, all men who profess to believe in God should unite in asking His help and His guidance. We should lay aside our differences and come together now—for never have our differences seemed so petty and so insignificant as they do in the face of the peril we confront today.

It is not just this church or that church which is in danger. It is not just this creed or that creed that is threatened. All churches, all creeds, are menaced. The very future of the Word of God—the teaching that has come down to us from the days of the prophets and the life of Jesus—is at stake.

For some time I have been trying to bring a number of the great religious leaders of the world together in a common affirmation of faith. And that common affirmation, as I said awhile ago, is in the 20th chapter of Exodus, and in the 5th, 6th, and 7th chapters of the Gospel according to St. Matthew—the Sermon on the Mount. And I have been trying to make a common supplication to the one God that all creeds and all religions profess. I have asked them to join in one common act that will affirm these religious and moral principles on which we all agree.

Such an affirmation would testify to the strength of our common faith and our confidence in its ultimate victory over the forces of Satan that oppose it.

I am sorry to say that it has not yet been possible to bring the religious faiths together for this purpose of bearing witness in one united affirmation that God is the way of truth and peace. Even the Christian churches have not yet found themselves able to join together in a common statement of their faith that Christ is their Master and Redeemer and the source of their strength against the hosts of irreligion and danger in the world, and that will be the cause of world catastrophe. They haven’t been able to agree on as simple a statement as that. I have been working at it for years.

Despite the barriers that divide the different churches, there is a common bond of brotherhood that underlies them all. We must continue our effort to find those common ties, and to bring the churches together in greater unity in a crusade for peace. In this way, we shall come closer to the one God who is the Father of us all. In this way, we shall find greater power to meet the troubles of our time.

The way to such unity is long and hard. But we must continue to strive for it. And we must ask God’s help. If we really have faith, God will give us what we are not able to attain by our own efforts.

May God grant that we may speak together, as brothers, of His power and His mercy, and bear witness of Him against those who deny Him.

And may God unite the churches and the free world, to bring us peace in our time.

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