Happy Birthday! Early Lincoln on Religion

In 1846 Abraham Lincoln wrote the following about his religious outlook:

To the Voters of the Seventh Congressional District.

A charge having got into circulation in some of the neighborhoods of this District, in substance that I am an open scoffer at Christianity, I have by the advice of some friends concluded to notice the subject in this form. That I am not a member of any Christian Church, is true; but I have never denied the truth of the Scriptures; and I have never spoken with intentional disrespect of religion in general, or any denomination of Christians in particular. It is true that in early life I was inclined to believe in what I understand is called the “Doctrine of Necessity” — that is, that the human mind is impelled to action, or held in rest by some power, over which the mind itself has no control; and I have sometimes (with one, two or three, but never publicly) tried to maintain this opinion in argument. The habit of arguing thus however, I have, entirely left off for more than five years. And I add here, I have always understood this same opinion to be held by several of the Christian denominations. The foregoing, is the whole truth, briefly stated, in relation to myself, upon this subject.

I do not think I could myself, be brought to support a man for office, whom I knew to be an open enemy of, and scoffer at, religion. Leaving the higher matter of eternal consequences, between him and his Maker, I still do not think any man has the right thus to insult the feelings, and injure the morals, or the community in which he may live. If, then, I was guilty of such conduct, I should blame no man who should condemn me for it; but I do blame those, whoever they may be, who falsely put such a charge in circulation against me.

A. Lincoln

July 31, 1846

We see that Lincoln was at times accused of either not being religious or even being hostile to religion. While he admits to not belonging to a church, he also does not express any particular belief. Today, a politician with national ambitions would quickly state their deep and meaningful faith. Instead, he denies having ever spoken poorly of scripture or religion in general. Essentially, he denies ever having denied it. A very nice rhetorical move.

In the second paragraph, Lincoln expresses tolerance for religion. I think that Lincoln, who will later use Christian references and symbols in his speeches, largely values religion as a mechanism for expressing humanistic philosophical concepts. It is of little interest to him as to what others think on the matter of religion and he seems to be a bit a baffled as the why anyone would care as to the content of his religious belief, let alone whether he believes at all.

Yet, we see in his Gettysburg Address and his Second Inaugural Address not only a respect for religion, but depth reflection about questions of justice and mercy. The product of this relection is expressed in very biblical terms. Some have viewed this as evidence of Lincoln’s turn toward a Christian faith. While this may be the case, I do not think it is in the tradition sense. Instead, I view Lincoln as turning to a common language. The common language of Lincoln’s youth and the common language of the people. This is not so much because the people were particularly religious, but because the Bible was the one book that most families had in their homes. At a time of great suffering, Lincoln turned to this share vocabulary.

Lately I have come across writing by two prominent contemporary philosophers who, while not known for being religious, have also been critical, like Lincoln, of those who would a “scoffer” of religion.

The first is Martha Nussbaum, a philosopher at the University of Chicago Law School. In her recent book Liberty of Conscience: In Defense of America’s Tradition of Religious Equality, she blasts the recent rise of new Atheism for being hostile to not only religion, but also to the American tradition of religious toleration. She views them as being little different, in terms of their impact on religious toleration, than religious fundamentalists.

Nussbaum is not a religious conservative at all. Yet, she is a convert to Reform Judaism. She is often reminding other liberals and feminists that they should not discard religion completely, just because of wrongs committed in the name of religion. As a liberal and feminist, I have often needed this reminder myself.

The second is late political philosopher John Rawls. In discussing his loss of orthodox religious faith, he also rejects atheism. I have a lot to say about this essay and will write about it at a later date.

One of my colleagues at BYU has questioned whether liberal society can really support religion and whether a liberal can really be religious. I am not talking about the old boring debate about whether Mormon and be a Democrat. The question is whether a Kantian liberal can be a Mormon…or…whether a Mormon can be a Kantian Liberal. Well, I am a Mormon Kantian (or a Kantian Mormon). What does that mean? Well, that is what I am hoping to work out. I hope you will follow my journey.

4 Replies to “Happy Birthday! Early Lincoln on Religion”

  1. An interesting story (I”m not 100 % sure it is true but if it isn’t it should be) about Lincoln and his congressional race.

    Lincoln’s opponet was a revialist preacher, Peter Cartwright. Lincoln attended one of his revivals during the campagin. Cartwright asked all the people in the audience who were going to heaven to stand up. Of course everyone did, except Lincoln. He then asked everyone who was going to Hell to stand up, No one did.

    Cartwight then asked ” Mr. Lincoln, where are you going?”

    Lincoln responded, ” I am going to Congress” . Lincoln won the election.

  2. Given all we now know about Lincoln, we might say he was indulging in a little historical revisionism here. His attitude toward religion did change over time, as do many peoples’, and I think he eventually began attending services at the New York Avenue Presbyterian Church in Washington as an unaffiliated person, but let’s not try to make him something he was not. The next thing we will want to believe is that he was a great friend of the Mormons.

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