The phrase “There but for the grace of God, go I” originated centuries ago in a more pious and devout era. Believed to have first been uttered by English evangelical preacher and martyr John Bradford observing criminals being led to the gallows, his own evangelizing in 1555 led to his death by burning at the stake. However, he remained sanguine both about his fate and his faith, allegedly telling a fellow prisoner facing execution as well, “We shall have many a merry supper with the Lord this night.”
The rarity with which this phrase is heard today, or even recognized for its historic perspective about faith in God, is a subtle indicator that society has moved further away from the desire, or any feeling of need, to seek out God’s grace.
The 18th century English religious writer and philanthropist Hannah Moore wrote about faith, “In agony or danger, no nature is atheist. The mind that knows not what to fly to, flies to God.”
A phrase believed of World War I vintage is, “There are no atheists in a foxhole.” For many, there is a need to find ourselves in a situation in which death appears imminent, the ability to control circumstances seems hopeless, and one “knows not what to fly to” before faith finally kicks in.
World War II proved to be the bloodiest war in history – a result of the impact of “Total War” claiming both military and civilian casualties. It is estimated over 65 million, or 2.5% of the world’s population, perished in the conflict. It was a war undoubtedly causing many who were impacted, including atheists, to discover their faith.
A faith revival evolved after World War II as a result of the sheer number of Americans who had served in it (about 9% of the population) and the even larger percentage who had loved ones so serving for whom they relentlessly prayed.
This revival continued in the military as the American Legion launched a 1954 program seeking to bring God into the lives of veterans. President Dwight D. Eisenhower, whose D-Day prayers were successfully answered 10 years earlier when Allied forces landed in Europe, initiating their final march to victory, said about the program at the time:
“As a former soldier, I am delighted that our veterans are sponsoring a movement to increase our awareness of God in our daily lives. In battle, they learned a great truth – that there are no atheists in the foxholes. They know that in time of test and trial, we instinctively turn to God for new courage. … Whatever our individual church, whatever our personal creed, our common faith in God is a common bond among us.”
Eisenhower’s personal experiences in life strengthened his religious beliefs. As a result, a close bond began to form between Christianity and the U.S. presidency in the 1950s, turning that decade into a time of extraordinary religious revival. Prior to America’s entry into World War II, church membership was only 49%; however, by 1960, it had grown to 69%.
Eisenhower was a catalyst in shepherding in this revival. In fact, one of the first things he did – only ten days after his inauguration – was to be baptized. As his wife, Mamie, was a member of the National Presbyterian Church, he quietly approached the church about being baptized, feeling it was important as president for him to do so.
Eisenhower consistently endeavored to put faith front and center in all he did. This included writing a short prayer he recited to begin his inauguration, starting Cabinet meetings with a silent prayer, initiating the National Prayer Breakfast, making “In God We Trust” America’s official motto, including its placement on our paper currency, etc.
Eisenhower firmly believed religious faith was the single most important distinction between American freedom and Communist oppression. The accuracy of this belief is reflected today by a serious decline in American society’s faith – the result of almost half our younger population embracing the socialism that communism promotes.
A 2020 poll by Victims of Communism Memorial Foundation discovered that 49% of Generation Z Americans have a favorable view of socialism – an increase of 9% from a 2019 survey. Interestingly, this is in sync with a 2019 Pew poll revealing 49% of millennials do not identify themselves as Christian although three-quarters of baby boomers do. But even among older adults, the numbers of the faithful are declining.
Of the two major faiths – Protestant and Roman Catholic – 43% identify today as the former and 20% the latter, down from 2009 percentages of 51% and 24%, respectively. And, as far as those who are unaffiliated, self-described atheists account for 4% – double from what it was in 2009 – while 17% claim no religion in particular – up from 12%. Gallup reports Americans’ membership in houses of worship dropped below 50% for the first time in the eight decades it has conducted such polls. The last decade has seen those attending religious services at least once or twice a month decrease 7%.
The military too has taken a turn towards atheism as the Military Association of Atheists and Freethinkers adopted the slogan “Atheists in Foxholes” to list those in uniform lacking a belief in God.
Playing a role as well in demonizing religion are the media and educators. Concerning the former, a 1991 study found anti-Catholic critics are quoted by the media much more frequently than supporters of Catholicism. Concerning the latter, ironically 2021 research found the more educated one is the more anti-Semitic one becomes.
Religion was always of importance to our Founding Fathers who considered the Creator’s existence “as the most fundamental premise underlying all self-evident truth.” George Washington tied religion to morality, noting, “Of all the dispositions and habits which lead to political prosperity, religion and morality are indispensable supports. … And let us with caution indulge the supposition that morality can be maintained without religion.”
It was the presence of God in the lives of earlier American generations that enabled them to defeat the totalitarian ideologies of Nazi Germany, Italy and Japan. It is the lack of God today in the lives of our younger generations that gives rise to an ideology that will be our undoing.
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