How did God get removed from Gettysburg? Why does this matter?

President Obama figures into both answers.

I take a pass on so many stories and news items involving this president, but want to take a look at those which tell us something important about the man in the office once considered the most powerful in the world. And even among those stories, I let many pass that show how differently he regards that office and carries it out.

But this one is worth a closer look.

President Obama cut God out of his recitation of the Gettysburg Address.

In a recorded recitation uploaded to YouTube on November 9, President Obama read the address in its entirety. However, when it came to the line “that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom,” the President left out the words “under God.”

Real Clear Politics called it a stunning snub. President Obama did not go to Gettysburg for this anniversary. Though that’s not unprecedented by any means, it’s more laden with meaning for this president.

Some background:

GETTYSBURG – He almost was not asked to speak.

In October 1863, President Abraham Lincoln received the same plain envelope that was sent to hundreds of people, requesting attendance at a dedication of the Soldiers’ National Cemetery here.

Col. Clark E. Carr, a confidante of several U.S. presidents and a member of the commission that organized the event, later admitted that commissioners scrambled to send a more personal invitation after Lincoln indicated he would attend.

Asking Lincoln to deliver a “few appropriate thoughts,” Carr said, was “an afterthought.”…

When Lincoln arrived, Gettysburg remained raw from the horrific battle that raged here for three days just five months earlier. More than 70,000 Confederate troops engaged 83,000 Federal troops around this crossroads town; the battle claimed more than 50,000 souls and 3,000 horses, and it changed the course of the war in the Union’s favor.

The bones of dead horses still were strewn over surrounding farmlands; vultures hovered over the landscape, and unburied coffins stood stacked in town.

Lincoln had plenty of justifiable, honorable reasons to beg off from the ceremony…

Yet he came to a place underscored with death, tasked with making sense of it all with “a few appropriate thoughts” that gave meaning to the losses and the unbearable sacrifices.

It’s a place and occasion of great importance in American history. And this president has made such a point of standing on the shoulders of President Abraham Lincoln.

In 2008, Barack Obama rolled out his presidential campaign in Springfield, Ill., where Lincoln announced his own presidential candidacy. Throughout that year’s campaign, Obama’s staff embraced similarities between the two men as part of his persona; he allowed them to encourage lofty comparisons – and, after he won the election, he recreated Lincoln’s 1861 train trip to Washington as part of his own inaugural spectacle.

He even took the oath of office on Lincoln’s Bible – twice.

Lincoln brought the country to a revival at an unlikely time with his address. He gave new meaning to the definition of sacrifice in service to the country, for the purpose of the preserving the country.

Lincoln was asked to speak here only as an afterthought. The request for Obama to speak has been sought for more than a year.

It would be an occasion for him to honor a crucial time in our past, to create a historical bridge to today.

His dismissal of the request shows a man so detached from the duty of history, from the men who served in the White House before him, that it is unspeakable in its audacity.

Ask almost any person in this historic town; even his most ardent supporters here are stunned.

I try not to deal in speculation and hypothesis. But this is dealing with the facts.

Facts matter. Especially fundamental ones, as Princeton Professor Robert George, Constitutional Law expert, eloquently explains.

The Declaration of Independence, the Gettysburg Address, and the Constitution of the United States of America—those were the three texts in the blue pamphlet I found on the table in front of me as I took my seat at a conference at Princeton.

On the cover was the logo of the American Constitution Society for Law and Policy, an influential organization whose board members include former New York Times Supreme Court reporter Linda Greenhouse, controversial Obama judicial nominee Goodwin Liu, former New York governor Mario Cuomo, former solicitors general Drew Days and Walter Dellinger, and former attorney general Janet Reno. The new Supreme Court nominee Elena Kagan was a speaker at the society’s annual conventions in 2005, 2007, and 2008. And inside the pamphlet was a page saying, “The printing of this copy of the U.S. Constitution and of the nation’s two other founding texts, the Declaration of Independence and the Gettysburg Address, was made possible through the generosity of Laurence and Carolyn Tribe.”

How nice, I thought. Here is a convenient, pocket-sized version of our fundamental documents, including Lincoln’s great oration at Gettysburg on republican government. Although some might question the idea that a speech given more than eighty years after the Declaration qualifies as a founding text, its inclusion seemed to me entirely appropriate. By preserving the Union, albeit at a nearly incalculable cost in lives and suffering, Lincoln completed, in a sense, the American founding. Victory at Gettysburg really did ensure that government “by the people” and “for the people”—republican government—would not “perish from the earth.”

However, the text was tweaked, or edited, choose your word. Because words do matter.

What’s missing is Lincoln’s description of the United States as a nation under God. What Lincoln actually said at Gettysburg was: “that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom.” The American Constitution Society had omitted Lincoln’s reference to the United States as a nation under God from the address he gave at the dedication of the burial ground at Gettysburg.

At the time, staring at the text, I wondered whether it was an innocent, inadvertent error—a typo, perhaps. It seemed more likely, though, that here is the apex of the secularist ideology that has attained a status not unlike that of religious orthodoxy among liberal legal scholars and political activists. Nothing is sacred, as it were—not even the facts of American history, not even the words spoken by Abraham Lincoln at the most solemn ceremony of our nation’s history.

And now we’re considering them in the context of the first American president of color who has so prominently called on the model and memory of President Lincoln.

Robert George wrote this piece in 2010. Now we’re considering these words in the context of the anniversary of the Gettysburg Address in 2013.

The omission of the words “under God” in a document characterized as a founding text by a liberal legal advocacy organization in the context of our contemporary debates over the role of religion in American public life and the meaning of the Constitution’s provisions pertaining to religion is just too convenient. We now have positive evidence that they know exactly what they are doing, and, to achieve the result they want, they are willing to violate scholarly consensus, common sense, and the memorization of generations
of schoolchildren.

Perhaps the American Constitution Society can provide some evidence to show that they did not have an ideological purpose in omitting words that, if included in a founding text, are so damaging to liberal orthodoxy on church–state issues. If so, we can look forward to a correction of the pamphlet’s text and on the society’s website and in the next edition.

That didn’t happen but is irrelevant to the point here. In January 2012, this president’s administration issued the HHS mandate under Obamacare breaching the First Amendment protection of the free exercise of religion, and the declaration of founding principles “under God” that recognize the first, most cherished freedom as the freedom of religion.

The president has found yet another way to signal some hostility at worst and discomfort at best toward the free exercise of religion in a representative republic.

Sheila Liaugminas

Sheila Liaugminas is an Emmy award-winning Chicago-based journalist in print and broadcast media. Her writing and broadcasting covers matters of faith, culture, politics and the media....