On Lincoln’s Religion

The current issue of First Things includes an article called “Lincoln and the Will of God.” In it, Weekly Standard editor Andrew Ferguson writes of the myriad attempts of thinkers and groups—religious and anti-religious alike—to claim our sixteenth president as their own. He is the patron saint of people of every theological stripe, from “evangelicals” to “liberals.” Occult groups like the Rosicrucian Fraternity and Christian Scientists want him, and even agnostics and atheists call him brother. Even practitioners of other religions have attempted to tie him to their faith. How is this possible? Wasn’t Lincoln demonstrably a Christian, perhaps even an evangelical?

The truth, Ferguson writes, is much more complicated—both by the evidence and by Lincoln’s “martyrdom,” the victim of a Southern conspiracy. That event, following as it did on the heels of the War, served both to solidify Union resolve through Reconstruction and to elevate Lincoln himself to cult figure status. Indeed, Lincoln’s legacy has been almost uniformly positive. He appears in the top three on every major “greatest presidents” list of the 20th century, and as number 1 on half of these. (In the other half, Lincoln loses the top spot to either Washington or FDR.) “Few figures in American history are so tantalizing as Lincoln,” writes Ferguson, “so approachable on the one hand and so unreachable on the other; demanding to be understood and impossible to comprehend.” Not surprisingly, then, Lincoln has been the subject of thousands of biographies, one of the first appearing just a year after his death (J.G. Holland’s Life of Abraham Lincoln), all attempting to comprehend (or appropriate) the man.

But as happens to many cult figures, the Lincoln legacy has grown into a genuine mythology. It has its own scriptures, and indeed its own apocrypha. One of the scriptures is a fragment today called ““Meditation on the Divine Will.” Dated September 30, 1862, it follows (and perhaps springs from) a series of deeply troubling events, including the death of his son, Willie, in February of that year; the bloodiest day in American history (the battle of Antietam); and the issuing of the Emancipation Proclamation. In the “Meditation” Lincoln writes:

The will of God prevails. 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. In the present civil war it is quite possible that God’s purpose is something different from the purpose of either party; and yet the human instrumentalities, working just as they do, are of the best adaptation to effect his purpose. I am almost ready to say that this is probably true; that God wills this contest, and wills that it shall not end yet. By his mere great power on the minds of the now contestants, he could have either saved or destroyed the Union without a human contest. Yet the contest began. And, having begun, he could give the final victory to either side any day. Yet the contest proceeds.

Ferguson analyzes it thus: “[The fragment] too reveals Lincoln’s religious sense but in a different, more profound phase. From an awed appreciation of the physical world, it had deepened into a much darker apprehension of a Providence that haunts human affairs.” In fact, what emerges from this and other late-War statements and scribblings (especially in the Gettysburg Address and the Second Inaugural Address) is “a civil religion … steeped in the cadences and rhetoric of the King James Bible.”

One need only read those two latter documents to see that the Union passed from a desirable reality to Lincolnian obsession. His primary allegiance is to the architects of American Independence; his Bible, the Declaration crafted by Jefferson (with help from Adams), and not the Constitution that resulted from careful deliberation and discussion. It’s a painful realization to come to, but I’m beginning to wonder if my friend is right in contending that Lincoln was not only not a good president, but in reality a bad man.

Important Note: Bad men sometimes do good things. In fact, all the “good” things in our world (including, I may add, the Emancipation Proclamation), are the work of depraved men who can take no credit for them.

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