A press critic called it “a festival of American civil religion.”

Leaders at last month’s joint conventions of the National Association of Evangelicals (NAE) and the National Religious Broadcasters (NRB) in Washington, D.C., would reject that description of their Bicentennial observance. Yet it is easy to see why an outsider might reach such a conclusion. The program featured an unprecedented mix of politicians and preachers, music and speeches resplendent in God-and-country themes, counsel by a convert from the Watergate cast, resolutions aimed at exerting a moral influence on the nation, and a position paper bearing the title, “Let Freedom Ring,” that prescribed antidotes to America’s spiritual decay.

For many of the 2,000-plus delegates (divided about evenly between the NAE and NRB), it wasn’t a matter of indulging in civil religion but of being challenged to be better Christians and better citizens—and celebrating the fact that they are both.

The four-day event at the Shoreham Americana hotel opened with a Sunday-night “prayer for the nation” rally at which President Ford and Republican congressman John Conlan spoke. In a brief address, Ford credited America’s greatness in part to the place God and the Scriptures had in the thinking of the country’s founders. Responding to those who would complain that with so much corruption and upheaval in society they don’t know who or what to believe, the President said, “My answer is that we can believe in God, we can believe in the faith of our fathers.”

Southern Baptist pastor and broadcaster Jess Moody of West Palm Beach, Florida, asked the President and others to join hands in prayer for the nation. Hundreds wept as Ford clasped hands with Moody and Ben Armstrong, executive secretary ...

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