Lincoln and King were in my view products of Puritanism more than evangelicalism. For each, God was a mystery. But this mysterious God had entered into a covenant with us, so it was up to us to uphold our end of the bargain. In so doing, our goal was never to make heaven on earth but to strive toward a less imperfect union and a more beloved community.
In his essay on “Civil Religion in America,” sociologist Robert Bellah argues that “civil religion is not the worship of the American nation but an understanding of the American experience in the light of ultimate and universal reality.” It does not assert that God is on our side. Instead it prays that we might act in such a way that we might be worthy of his approval. In their most famous speeches, Lincoln and King labored toward just that sort of understanding. May it be so for President Obama as well.