Abraham Lincoln is by far the most famous of American presidents, and not just because he cut an impressive, bearded and stovepipe-hatted figure that forever gave historical reenactors and drunk Halloween party-goers a reason to get out of bed every morning.
Lincoln was the president who saved the Union from the southern slaveholders’ insurrection (with a little help from the United States military), and he died as a martyr for that most American of notions: that all men (and women) really are created equal. Plus, according to at least one scholar, he single-handedly fought off hoards of vampires. April 2015 marks the 150th anniversary of Lincoln’s assassination by actor, Confederate sympathizer, and monumental buzzkill, John Wilkes Booth. Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton truly said it best (if he said it all) when he remarked upon Honest Abe’s violent death that, “Now he belongs to the ages.” The current age could learn a lot from Lincoln’s wisdom and honesty.
Of course, Honest Abe wasn’t always honest. He was a lawyer and a politician for Pete’s sake. Like all human beings, he was deeply flawed: he lied, he made a lot of mistakes and bad decisions (Ambrose Burnside, Commander of the Army of the Potomac?! Dude…), and he made the most difficult decision that any Commander-in-Chief can make, the decision to send men to die in battle, against their own countrymen, no less. Yet Lincoln’s flaws, and, more importantly, his recognition that he and other humans were deeply flawed, contributed to his immortal status in U.S. history.
This was especially the case with regards to his views on the nature of faith and the role of religion in the American public sphere. As a man living in the exceptionally religious nineteenth century, Lincoln’s humbleness, bolstered by the recognition that no person can truly know the mind of an unseen celestial being, was remarkable for a man of his time. His views on faith and God were exceptionally non-religious, and his nuanced approach to faith is something sorely needed in twenty-first century America, where the self-righteous use religion less as a conduit for inward reflection and more as a cudgel for brutishly separating “Us” from “Them” and promoting malice towards some. We live in an era in which judgmental modern Pharisees use their rhetoric and legislation to stomp on the throats of the meek — all under the guise of “Religious Liberty.” With this in mind, Lincoln’s calls to recognize the folly of humans who invoke God as an excuse to stifle the freedom of other humans is as relevant as ever.
Abraham Lincoln didn’t wear religion in his sleeve (or even under his hat), and historians still debate the nature of his beliefs. In a recent informative essay, for example, Samuel Calhoun and Lucas Morel outline many prominent Lincoln scholars’ views on the sixteenth president’s religious beliefs, all of which differ in some ways. For their part, Calhoun and Morel argue that Lincoln believed in “a personal, sovereign God,” one who demonstrated “absolute, complete control” over human actions. Moreover, Allen Guelzo, one of the foremost Lincoln scholars and author of Abraham Lincoln: Redeemer President, argues that Lincoln saw a vast distance between humans and the God for whom they claimed to speak — a distance that no amount of theology could close.
Guelzo reminds us that Lincoln was not a Christian in any traditional sense (he never joined a church, nor was he ever involved in any explicitly Christian organizations). But Lincoln was exposed to different Christian ideas throughout his life, and these ideas profoundly influenced his interpretation of the chaos that was the Civil War. Lincoln was “something close to a Deist,” who believed, in a general sense, that “there was a force that gave order and shape and predictability to the world and to the universe.” But the Civil War left Lincoln with little recourse but to embrace a deterministic, downright Calvinistic view of faith, in which humans who claimed to know the will of God would always be in for a rude awakening when the Almighty seemingly failed to validate their views. Lincoln didn’t believe that human beings had free will, Guelzo writes, because the idea of free will seemed preposterous in light of a war in which Americans blew themselves to pieces all while claiming the sanction of a supposedly righteous, intervening god.*
While Lincoln was not in any real sense an atheist, his approach to faith was one steeped in humility and the necessary doubt that should come with any serious examination of the violence, cruelty, and chaos that reigns in a human society ostensibly blessed by God’s benevolent hand.
Consider Lincoln’s March 4, 1865 Second Inaugural Address, which is among the most famous of his many eloquent speeches. Historians have long studied the openness with which Lincoln discussed faith in relation to the Civil War at the beginning of what was to become his tragically short second term. First, Lincoln wrestled with the fact that both North and South claimed to be fighting in the name of God. “Both read the same Bible and pray to the same God, and each invokes His aid against the other,” Lincoln observed. Yet he understood that merely invoking the sanction of the Almighty did not excuse the inherent evil of human actions.
The was most obvious when it came to southern slavery, which “constituted a peculiar and powerful interest” which all knew “was somehow the cause of the war.” Lincoln remarked that “to strengthen, perpetuate, and extend this interest was the object for which the insurgents would rend the Union even by war,” and he recognized that invoking God to do so was, to say the least, problematic. “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,” he stated. Of course, Lincoln DID reign down judgement upon the Southern Confederacy by making war and destroying the institution of slavery which most of the South fought to preserve. So how do we reconcile his call to “judge not” with the war’s orgy of violence and social disruption?
Lincoln’s answer was that we can’t. As humans, we can only be responsible for human actions, and if those actions are in the service of evil and of unjust judgement on our fellow humans, then God (whatever God is) will render judgement whether we agree with it or not. “The prayers of both [North and South] could not be answered,” Lincoln stated, for “the Almighty has His own purposes.” During the Civil War, that purpose was clearly to destroy the evil of slavery. “Fondly do we hope, fervently do we pray, that this mighty scourge of war may speedily pass away,” Lincoln noted, “Yet, if God wills that it continue until all the wealth piled by the bondsman’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…so still it must be said ‘the judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether.'” This observation startlingly constituted a Calvinistic belief in predestination as well as an admission of doubt in faith’s power to do good in the world.
Lincoln believed that the Civil War was the result of human decisions that were practically inevitable. If Americans were arrogant enough to claim that they knew the will of God — that their pet causes just happened to match those of the Supreme Being — then they were only inviting judgement. In light of this realization, the best humans could hope to do was to do good. On the one hand, this was the very essence of humility in faith: a recognition that humans don’t really know God, despite their claims to the contrary. But Lincoln’s thoughts also reveal what I think were his lingering doubts about religion as an idea and God as an actual existing force. Take the idea of “God” out of Calvinism, and you’re left with the (albeit extreme) realization of the limits of human wisdom. If the Civil War demonstrated nothing else, it showed that merely invoking God doesn’t prevent the worst violence and evil from existing in the world. Americans have always claimed to be a religious people, but this claim has never fully stopped them from committing atrocities in God’s name. Lincoln understood this fact.
The President ended his Second Inaugural Address with one of the most significant lines in American history. “With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us…do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations,” he stated. Lincoln understood that religion in the service of malice only leads to destruction — the Civil War was proof of that. Charity for all has consistently been the most difficult notion for human societies to recognize, but it remains the most important notion for both believers and unbelievers to grasp, because without charity, there will never be peace.
In twenty-first century America, the proponents of so-called “religious freedom” operate in the name of malice toward some instead of charity for all. Religious freedom doesn’t just mean the right to believe as you see fit; it also constitutes the right to allow multiple faiths to flourish in a society that doesn’t codify any single faith into law, thereby sanctioning one particular group as the sole mouthpiece for God.
Abraham Lincoln recognized the very real limits of the human ability to interpret the will of the divine. He understood that commiting wrongs in the name of God was still wrong, and that better judgments need to prevail. Of course, he was also a man under whose authority hundreds-of-thousands of people perished in war, the very antithesis of peace (duh). Yet unlike others in America’s past and present who have unapologetically soldiered on while claiming divine sanction for the blood on their hands, Lincoln recognized the severity of his and the nation’s actions, and he was perceptive enough to own up to those actions rather than pawning them off as the will of the heavens. We could use more of this type of humble perception in contemporary America.
Those who weaponize faith in order to arbitrarily separate the righteousness from the unrighteous, the “true” believers from the heretics, demonstrate a certitude that is truly blind. Above all else, the idea of “Religious Freedom” should constitute the freedom to openly admit that we can’t really know the will of God, because we can neither agree on God’s nature nor ultimately prove His existence. After all, “a just and lasting peace” hangs in the balance.
* See Allen C. Guelzo, Abraham Lincoln: Redeemer President (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Erdmans Publishing, 1999).
* See Allen C. Guelzo, “Lincoln and Religion,” in Brian Lamb and Susan Swain, eds., Abraham Lincoln: Great American Historians on Our Sixteenth President (New York: National Cable Satellite Corporation, 2008), 189-192.