Column by Jonathan Nagy
In the long, great history of the United States, most presidents have been sworn into their positions with their right hands on a Bible. Many chose to have the Bible open to certain passages, with Proverbs and Psalms being popular choices. President Arthur had his Bible open to Psalm 31:1; In you, LORD, I have taken refuge; let me never be put to shame; deliver me in your righteousness.” President Eisenhower chose Psalm 33:12, Blessed is the nation whose God is the Lord; and the people whom he has chosen for his own inheritance.” Others have chosen words from the Gospels, as was the case with President Lincoln and Matthew 7:1, Judge not, that ye be not judged. For each of his four inaugurations, President Franklin Roosevelt chose First Corinthians 13; “If I speak in the tongues of men or of angels, but do not have love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal. f I have the gift of prophecy and can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have a faith that can move mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing. If I give all I possess to the poor and give over my body to hardship that I may boast, but do not have love, I gain nothing.”
George Washington set a precedent by adding “So help me God” at the end of the Presidential Oath of Office, which has been followed by most of his successors. These men all assumed immense responsibilities that come with the Office of the President. Even if they have not been religious in their lives, I choose to believe that instead of just pandering to a Christian nation, these individuals invoke the Name of the Lord to help guide them through difficult times.
During the month of February, we take time to celebrate the national President’s Day holiday, honoring all presidents, especially Washington and Lincoln. While we like to take a partisan approach and focus our attention on the negative aspects of their terms, we should also take the time to recognize the incredible responsibility each has chosen to accept. This nation has always lifted its prayers to God in hope of success and prosperity to all, especially our leaders.
With the presence of 24-hour news in a multitude of media platforms, so much information, disinformation, truths, half-truths, lies, sensationalism, satirism, hate speech, and spin is presented to everyone in an overwhelming way. I can’t count the number of times someone has said to me, “I read on the internet…” There is a reason why I make all of my students document their sources! Too many people accept what they read as the absolute truth.
I recently came across a quote on the internet (yes, I do it too) that said, “If you are going to believe everything you read, you should start with the Bible.” That quote hit me and has stuck with me since I saw it. The truth laden in The Good Book comes straight from God. Almost every president has had their hand on that same book as they took the Presidential Oath. While we are quick to point fingers and say, “I doubt those presidents ever cracked it,” maybe we should ask ourselves the same question. And while we are asking ourselves questions, maybe we should inquire as to whether we believe what we read in the Bible.
Everyone has their favorite Bible verses that they use as a personal philosophy or reference at different times in their lives. My favorite verse is Psalm 27:1: The Lord is my Light and my Salvation, whom shall I fear? My maternal grandmother’s favorite verse was Matthew 17:20:Truly I tell you, if you have faith as small as a mustard seed, you can say to this mountain, ‘Move from here to there,’ and it will move. Nothing will be impossible for you. My mother’s favorite is 1 Corinthians 13:13: And now these three remain: faith, hope, and love. But the greatest of these is love. My favorite president, Abraham Lincoln, often quoted Matthew 12:25: Jesus knew their thoughts and said to them, “Every kingdom divided against itself will be ruined, and every city or household divided against itself will not stand. During the course of the Civil War, Lincoln paraphrased that quote so often as, “A house divided against itself cannot stand,” that many have come to attribute it to him.
President Lincoln was an extremely well-read individual, with some of his favorite works coming from Euclid, Plutarch, Edgar Allen Poe, and William Shakespeare. But the book that he studied the most, and had large portions memorized from, was the Bible. Columnist Stephen Flurry once wrote that, “The Bible influenced his thoughts, his private conversations, his public speeches, and how he lived his life.” Historian Paul Angle noted, “For Mr. Lincoln, the Bible brought him a lifetime of education.” When Lincoln was given one as a gift, he said, “In regard to this Great Book, I have but to say, it is the best gift God has given to man. All the good the Savior gave to the world was communicated through this book. But for it, we could not know right from wrong. All things most desirable for man’s welfare, here and hereafter, are to be found portrayed in it.” Lincoln was so devoted to following the ways of Jesus Christ that he intended to travel to the Holy Land upon the end of his term. Sadly, on Good Friday, April 14, 1865, Abraham Lincoln was called home to the Lord he loved when he was assassinated.
Lincoln read and believed every word of the Bible, especially the teachings of Jesus Christ in the New Testament. He led this country through its most difficult time period, and did so with dignity and honor, for he knew that God would see us through. If he had that faith through the Civil War, why is today’s society so reluctant to accept that same truth? Jesus spoke of this truth in Matthew 8:31-32, saying, “If you continue in My word, you are truly My disciples. Then you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.” That truth is right at our fingertips!
I remember walking into my paternal grandmother’s living room and seeing her big brown Bible sitting on the shelf by the entryway. While I don’t remember her opening it often, she was quick to quote it. My father said that when he was young, grandma would even yell out, “Dust the Bible! We are having company!” Looking back, I also see its placement in her house as a symbol. It was one of the first things anyone saw walking into her home, saying to everyone who entered that God comes first.
Where is the Bible placed in your home? Is it somewhere that is easily accessible and often used, or is it shoved in a cabinet somewhere? What is the condition of your Bible? Is it pristine, with the binding barely cracked, or is it ragged from use? How often do you open the Bible? What kind of importance do you put on the truth that is the Word of God? Are you familiar with the contents of the book?
Those questions are not rhetorical, but rather a way to begin examining the lessons that God placed there for us. When we remember that the words in the book came straight from the Lord, they take on new meaning for each of us. Reverend Noyes W. Miner, a friend of Abraham Lincoln once said that, “Lincoln believed in the divinity of the Scriptures, just like the Apostle Paul asserted: “All scripture is given by inspiration of God…” (2 Timothy 3:16). God has guidance and advice for all of us, in every situation that life presents to us, in the Bible.
If you have never familiarized yourself with the Bible, or it has been a long time since you have taken in those words, begin slowly by selecting a few books and reading what God is saying. I am not one to re-read books. Once I have read it, it goes on my shelf like some kind of cerebral trophy. But the Bible is different. I look forward to not only reading certain stories over and over again, but also hearing them read aloud at Mass. After all these years of participating in the reading the Passion on Palm Sunday and Good Friday, I can’t bring myself to say the words, “Crucify Him” when the congregation is called upon to speak. I feel like I am actually calling out, from my own heart, to crucify Jesus. The words jump right from the page and hit me hard, like a good book should. If any good book can move us emotionally, why shouldn’t THE GOOD BOOK move us emotionally and spiritually to take heed of the words and follow God’s advice?
If I go back to the article written by Stephen Flurry, he said, “We should be able to quote the Bible like Lincoln did and apply it to everyday situations. God is a practical God, and He sent us an instruction book to show us how to live. What does it show God if we neglect this most important manual for human life?” What a powerful statement that is! The Bible is the most truth-filled book that exists, and God has provided it to us. It is as if he is handing us the answers to the test!
I hope all politicians take seriously what they are doing when they place their hand on that sacred book and recite their oath. When they say the words, “So help me God,” I sincerely pray that they remember that he is always with them if they just put their trust and faith in his guiding word.
Nothing is stopping any of us from committing our lives to Jesus and waking up every morning and ending our prayers with “So help me God.” We can’t ask of our political leaders what we won’t do ourselves. If we want them to commit themselves to God, we must also do the same. As I always say, be the change that you wish to see in the world.
Just like President Lincoln, I hope that everyone will join me in applying the knowledge left us in the Bible to our own lives to make the world a better place. I know that I will try my best to do so, so help me God!
Jonathan Nagy, M.Ed., is the Dean of Students and Social Studies teacher at Bishop Carroll Catholic High School in Ebensburg. He is also the Music Director at the Basilica of Saint Michael the Archangel in Loretto.