February 3, 2024 at 10:30 a.m.
Brian Howey: Presidents and Providence
By Brian Howey
According to the campaign of Republican presidential frontrunner Donald J. Trump, the former commander-in-chief has divine providence.
“And on June 14, 1946, God looked down on his planned paradise and said, ‘I need a caretaker.’ So God gave us Trump,” the narrator of a Trump campaign video proclaimed. “God said, ‘I need somebody willing to get up before dawn, fix this country, work all day, fight the Marxists, eat supper, then go to the Oval Office and stay past midnight. So God made Trump.”
If this has a familiar ring to it, the video was based on the late broadcaster Paul Harvey, who gave a 1978 Future Farmers of America convention speech titled “So God Made a Farmer.”
In the American experience, those of presidential timber have cited what former Vice President Mike Pence called “servant leadership.” From Lincoln to Eisenhower, presidents have long suggested they have sought guidance from God. Trump’s campaign is suggesting divine intervention on his own behalf.
It prompted me to spend a morning researching other American presidential candidates who claimed messianic providence.
While there have probably been obscure presidential candidates who have claimed divine providence, as far as mainstream political figures, the “Trump is chosen” video is a historic anomaly. I could find only one example where a president believed he ended up at the White House due to an act of God, that coming in 1888 when Indiana’s Benjamin Harrison upset President Grover Cleveland.
President Harrison in his March 4, 1889, inaugural address called upon God to bestow on him “wisdom, strength, and fidelity.”
“The oath taken in the presence of the people becomes a mutual covenant,” President Harrison said. “Entering thus solemnly into covenant with each other, we may reverently invoke and confidently expect the favor and help of Almighty God.”
President Abraham Lincoln, who lived in Southern Indiana for two decades as a boy and young man, grappled with the vast implications of the Civil War and came to theological conclusions. In September 1862, before the Union army won the Battle of Antietam that would pave the way for his Emancipation Proclamation, Lincoln committed his thoughts about God on a small piece of paper that his secretary John Hay from Salem, Ind., found after his assassination. In 1872, Hay titled them as “Meditation on the Divine Will.”
“The will of God prevails,” Lincoln wrote. “In great contests, each party claims to act in accordance with the will of God. Both may be, and one must be wrong. God cannot be for and against the same thing at the same time.”
When the burials began after the Battle of Gettysburg in 1863, recovery teams found both Union and Confederate soldiers with personal Bibles on their bodies. There were more Bibles than bullets on these battlefield corpses.
Lincoln began to search for signs of God’s will on the question of emancipation. Secretary of the Navy Gideon Welles recorded Lincoln’s startling announcement after the Antietam victory: “God had decided this question in favor of the slaves. He was satisfied that it was right, was confirmed and strengthened this action by the vow and the results.”
In Ronald C. White Jr.’s book “Lincoln’s Greatest Speech” (about his 1865 second inaugural address delivered 41 days before his assassination), “Lincoln’s words were understood as his last will and testament to America. The religious cast of the Second Inaugural gave it a power and authority that were singular. These words were carved into Indiana limestone of the north interior wall of the Lincoln Memorial.”
White adds, “Lincoln is present to us in his own agonizing struggle for justice and reconciliation. He encourages us to ask difficult questions as we accept responsibility for defining America in our time.
“Lincoln wrote for all time,” White explains. “As the war drew to a close, Lincoln offered his sermon as the prism through which he himself strained to see the light of God. The spirit of Lincoln’s words inspires awe. His words prove lasting because he embodied what he spoke. He acted throughout his presidency ‘with malice toward none; with charity toward all.’”
** Brian Howey is senior writer and columnist for Howey Politics Indiana/State Affairs, where this column was previously published. Find Howey on Facebook and X @hwypol.