02/20/2011 08:46 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

Presidents and Providence

Presidents' Day coincides this year with the Torah reading that recounts the building and destruction of the Golden Calf. We mark the birthday of Abraham Lincoln, who lost his life within weeks of declaring the Civil War to be God's punishment for the sin of slavery, and then the birthday of George Washington, who offered "fervent supplication to that Almighty Being who rules over the universe, who presides in the councils of nations, and whose providential aids can supply every defect ... " Both presidents believed in some form of divine providence; indeed, American civil religion as a whole has always kept in view the image of God on high, just and merciful, Who seems to tolerate societal transgressions like the Golden Calf only so long and then "descends" to render swift and terrible judgment. Our greatest presidents did not agree on how closely God exercised that providence or the form taken by God's special concern for the United States of America. Their thinking remains helpful to religious Americans today.

Washington was the more circumspect of the two on this topic. Scholars divide on the exact nature of his beliefs as well as on the public expression of those beliefs. We do not know for sure whether he took communion in the Episcopal Church or how regularly he attended Sunday worship. We do know that Washington believed religion to be good for the nation and gave voice as president to a broad and sincere tolerance to Jews and Catholics. He also made frequent reference to God's providence in private correspondence as well as in public declarations. The first Thanksgiving Proclamation, issued in October 1789, urged service to "that great and glorious Being who is the beneficent author of all the good that was, that is, of what will be." Washington's first inaugural address that same year warned that "the propitious smiles of Heaven can never be expected on a nation that disregards the eternal rules of order and right which Heaven itself has ordained."

It is not clear from these or other speeches what Washington meant by providence. Like many believers before and since, he guarded a certain vagueness on the matter. He seems to have believed, humbly but firmly, that God played a role in entrusting the United States of America with "the sacred fire of liberty" and "the destiny of the republican model of government." More he could or would not say.

Lincoln was more explicit; the Second Inaugural Address, delivered March 4, 1865, is about as strong a statement as one could imagine of divine reward and punishment on the biblical model. Indeed, Lincoln makes the point that both North and South "read the same Bible and pray to the same God and each invokes His aid against the other." He was confident that the North read and acted more faithfully. Slavery was wrong. But "let us judge not, lest we be judged ... The Almighty has His own purposes."

That is the crux: Lincoln puzzles with the help of the Gospel of Matthew (18:7) over the fact that God allows "offenses" but eventually punishes the offender. God had long allowed slavery to continue but finally determined to remove it. "He gives to both North and South this terrible war as the woe due to those by whom the offense came." It could be God's will that the wealth piled by the bondsman's toil for 250 years shall be sunk in war "until every drop of blood drawn with the lash shall be paid by another drawn with the sword ... "

The rabbis called this method of divine justice "measure for measure." God exacts punishment in kind for human sin. We can't always fathom the accounting. Sometimes the punishment seems to fit the crime, sometimes not. Great offenders and offenses often continue beyond the endurance of the righteous. Lesser transgressions -- or even innocence -- result in suffering. "So still it must be said" -- and Lincoln, religious to the core, said it, quoting Psalms (19:9) -- "the judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether."

Martin Luther King Jr. also affirmed God's involvement in human affairs, but hesitated to identify the workings of providence with any certainty. He speculated about God's purposes in more than one sermon -- does human freedom perhaps depend upon God's noninterference in our affairs? -- and declared that God's apparent inaction in the face of evil does not mean God is unconcerned or uninvolved. "God does not forget his children who are the victims of evil forces." King was certain about one mode of divine action, which he knew from experience: God gives us the strength to resist evil and to fight it.

I find myself this Presidents' Day -- in the shadow of Egypt's overthrow of an undemocratic president of long standing -- as perplexed as ever on the matter of God's action in history. I am drawn to Washington's cautious view of providence, to Lincoln's fear-and-trembling sighting of divine involvement in history, and to the space of genuine uncertainty that lies between them. I don't know how one can do better than Lincoln or "explain" more than King. Sometimes I think Washington's prudence is the best course. This week we are wondering what role the generals played behind the scenes in Mubarak's ouster, whether the students on the street really acted alone, what influence Obama wielded from afar -- and some believers, I among them, cannot but wonder whether there was another Player behind the scenes or from afar, plotting the exodus of this Egyptian ruler as God had once overseen that of the Israelites, according to the Book that Washington, Lincoln, and King all held sacred. This last question, I confess, is not uppermost on my mind.

I suspect that Lincoln, who knew his Bible well, remembered God's admonishment to Job out of the whirlwind. God seems to say that it is right for human beings to persist in the belief that God is just and merciful (the attributes proclaimed before Moses at the top of the mountain right after the people's idolatry down below) even though we, mere creatures, cannot hope to understand or explain the acts or intent of our Creator. We should not discern in the woes that afflict us "any departure from those divine attributes which the believers in a living God always ascribe to him." We should seek, as Lincoln urged, to imitate those attributes in our dealings with one another. How? Lincoln is clear on the point. Harbor "malice toward none." Practice "charity for all." Hold "with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right." Strive always to "finish the work we are in," bind up wounds, care for widows and orphans, and "do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations."