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lincoln, faith and judgment

19 May 2004

In "Freethinkers: A History of American Secularism" Susan Jacoby reminds us that Abraham Lincoln never belonged to a church, even though friends and advisors told him that joining one would boost his chances of being elected to public office.

Later during his presidency Lincoln explained the problem of using one's belief in God to decide social issues or make policy decisions.

He pointed out that when the Northerner consulted God on the issue of slavery, He replied that it was wrong and should be abolished immediately. But when the Southerner consulted God on the same issue, He replied that slavery was not only OK but actually good, a necessary part of the preordained order of things. This speaks volumes, and I am tempted to say, "It tells us all that we need to know about belief." Which is ...

The God people believe in and pray to is the God who supports them in their prejudices and empowers them to remake the world in their own image and for their own purposes, even if it rips a country or a world apart. We are now in the position to know this better than Lincoln ever could. Our world is Lincoln's nightmare. The sense of religious, world-ripping empowerment results from factors of human psychology that every devout believer is bound by his dogma to dismiss but that every person of enlightened judgment is eager to consider.

Lincoln was perhaps our greatest president because he wrestled with the conflicts between faith and judgment; he understood that theology is a byproduct and extension human psychology, that dogma provides us with the justifications to be selfish yet feel selfless, that it locks us in our subjectivity by making us believe we've grasped "objective" facts concerning the truth of the world. This faith-judgment realization caused Lincoln a lot of inner turmoil but made him a great president.

Unlike our current "devout" president, he didn't see things in black and white and never came up with easy answers. That's why we think of Lincoln as an enlightened yet anguished man of character and integrity, something that George W. Bush will never be accused of.

Lincoln fit's Tolstoy's* definition of a freethinker: He did not place his personal views or affiliations ahead of his judgment ... while Bush built his career on doing just that. If ever you hear someone pontificate on good and evil or assert that God truly is on our side, just think of Lincoln and Bush.

*"I divide men into two lots. They are freethinkers, or they are not freethinkers. Freethinkers are those who are willing to use their minds without prejudice and without fearing to understand things that clash with their own customs, privileges, or beliefs. This state of mind is not common, but it is essential for right thinking; where it is absent, discussion is apt to become worse than useless. A man may be a Catholic, a Frenchman, or a capitalist, and yet be a freethinker; but if he puts his Catholicism, his patriotism, or his interest above his reason, and will not give the latter free play where those subjects are touched, he is not a freethinker. His mind is in bondage."

A REPLY ON LINCOLN: "Actually, what Lincoln believed is that it is important to do the will of God, because he believed God to be not only just, but also deeply interested and actively involved in the affairs of men. Lincoln believed himself to be an instrument of God, endowed with free will but held accountable for his actions in concert with or in opposition to God's will. He made his best judgments about how best to lead the nation, but he did so as a man of his time — a time when submission to the will of God was far more integral to prayer and thought than it seems to be today. Lincoln persevered through the most vicious criticism, cruel disappointments, bloody military setbacks and the sadness that he was ultimately responsible for spending thousands of his countrymen's lives to keep the Union together when it would have been so much easier to let the South go its way. He did so because he was sure it was the right thing to do."

From Lincoln's second inaugural address:

"Neither party expected for the war, the magnitude, or the duration, which it has already attained. Neither anticipated that the cause of the conflict might cease with, or even before, the conflict itself should cease. Each looked for an easier triumph, and a result less fundamental and astounding. Both read the same Bible, and pray to the same God; and each invokes His aid against the other. It may seem strange that any men should dare to ask a just God's assistance in wringing their bread from the sweat of other men's faces; but let us judge not that we be not judged. The prayers of both could not be answered; that of neither has been answered fully. The Almighty has his own purposes. "Woe unto the world because of offences! for it must needs be that offences come; but woe to that man by whom the offence cometh!" If we shall suppose that American Slavery is one of those offences which, in the providence of God, must needs come, but which, having continued through His appointed time, He now wills to remove, and that He gives to both North and South, this terrible war, as the woe due to those by whom the offence came, shall we discern therein any departure from those divine attributes which the believers in a Living God always ascribe to Him? Fondly do we hope — fervently do we pray — that this mighty scourge of war may speedily pass away. Yet, if God wills that it continue, until all the wealth piled by the bond-man's two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash, shall be paid by another drawn with the sword, as was said three thousand years ago, so still it must be said "the judgments of the Lord, are true and righteous altogether."

JON RESPONDED: Actually, it seems well nigh impossible to know what Lincoln really believed.

I can't vouch for Jacoby's status as a Lincoln scholar, but she says liberals, conservatives, fundamentalists and freethinkers all praise Lincoln as someone who embodied their core values, as the Lincolns we presented reflected our values. Some people even claim he was an atheist, despite all his references to God. There are as many Lincolns in the history books as there are in used-car lots.

Fact remains: He never belonged to a church. Fact remains: Both North and South thought God was on their side, and Lincoln recognized the bitter irony — and utter tragedy — of their certainties, how blood flows more freely from beliefs than bullets. I don't think it's stretching things to say Lincoln was concerned with the troublesome interplay of faith and judgment — that faith can corrupt judgment.

My current project is not about disproving God or ruining religion but all about encouraging thoughtful concern in regards "the troublesome interplay of faith and judgment." It's a small step that could bring huge rewards.

Some excerpts from Jacoby:

"A discussion of Lincoln is central to the history of American freethought because he grappled with and exemplified so many of the complicated, often dissonant forces that have shaped American attitudes toward religion. So large does Lincoln loom in the American pantheon that every religious and antireligious group wants to claim him as a member; over the years he has been described in print as an agnostic, unbeliever, freethinker, spiritualist, every sort of Protestant, and as a Roman Catholic." (Page 109, "Freethinkers: A History of American Secularism," by Susan Jacoby)

"The universality and durability of Lincoln's fascination to both the orthodox and the unorthodox can be gleaned even from a glancing survey of the hundreds of books devoted solely to his religious belief or nonbelief: 'Abraham Lincoln, The Ideal Christian' (1913); 'Lincoln the Freethinker' (1924); 'Abraham Lincoln and Hillel's Golden Rule' (1929); 'Abraham Lincoln: Fatalist, Skeptic, Atheist or Christian?' (1942); 'The Religion of Abraham Lincoln' (1963); 'Abraham Lincoln: Theologian of American Anguish,' (1973); and 'Lincoln's Greatest Speech,' (2002), "an elegant exegesis of his Second Inaugural Speech." (Page 109)

"As contemporary newspaper commentary makes clear, many Americans found the Second Inaugural Address puzzling and pedestrian, filled with doubt and ambiguity rather than a prophetic sense of purpose. Everyone is right — and therein lies the difficulty of classifying Lincoln's true religious outlook. ... If Lincoln was a theologian, his was a theology filled with inconsistencies, hesitations and unanswered questions." (Pages 119 and 121)  

"Whether Lincoln was or was not a devout believer — and a Christian — is a question that has never been answered." (Page 117)

"The transformation of martyred leader into patron saint of the new American political religion was an attempt to proclaim, in a confident affirmative, that religion was the answer. For Lincoln, poised between belief and unbelief, religion was the question." (Page 123)

And in regards our interest in judgment — uses, abuses and limits — it might be interesting to hear Lincoln's own words on the topic.

"I am approached with the most opposite opinions and advice, and that by religious men, who are equally certain that they represent the Divine will. I am sure that either the one or the other is mistaken, and perhaps in some respects both. I hope it will not be irreverent for me to say that if it is probable that God would reveal his will to others, on a point so connected with my duty, it might be supposed he would reveal it directly to me; for, unless I am more deceived in myself than I often am, it is my earnest desire to know the will of Providence in this matter. And if I can learn what it is, I will do it! These are not, however, the days of miracles, and I suppose it will be granted that I am not to expect a direct revelation. I must study the plain, physical facts of the case, ascertain what is possible and learn what appears to be wise and right." (Page 118)

PS. I just remembered Lincoln's religious affiliation was addressed in a scene from "All in the Family."

Super-bigot Archie is explaining to Edith (as if he really knew) how Jewish couples give their sons very traditional names that can be shortened cleverly into nonethinic sounding nicknames
"like SOL Nelson or IZZY Watson," Archie says. Without missing a beat, Meathead Mike adds, "... ABE Lincoln."

Edith looks desperately puzzled and exclaims, "I didn't know Lincoln was Jewish!" Archie explodes, and the audience roars.

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“Great doubt: great awakening. Little doubt: little awakening.
No doubt: no awakening.” — Zen proverb