Too Many Abraham Lincolns

Aug 26, 2019 by

by Matthew J Franck, Public Discourse:

Like Abraham Lincoln, a growing number of our young people are “unchurched.” As a result, our “us vs. them” politics functions as a substitute for religious observance, membership, and devotion. If there were more authentic religious practice in our society, there might be less of the bitterly partisan politics that divide our country.

In 1846, while running for the only term he would serve in the US House of Representatives, Abraham Lincoln had to respond to the talk going around his Illinois district that he was “an open scoffer at Christianity.” In a country still very saturated with the reinvigorated faith of the Second Great Awakening, this was the sort of reputation that could end a political career.

Lincoln’s response was interesting for its combination of candor and canniness. In a handbill distributed in the community (the text of which also appeared in a local newspaper), he wrote: “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 of any denomination of Christians in particular.” He went on to say that as a younger man (he was still only thirty-seven), he had for a time entertained the “Doctrine of Necessity,” disbelieving in free will—but added that he had “always understood this same opinion to be held by several of the Christian denominations.” Then he concluded:

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, of 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.

Notice that Lincoln appealed both to the moral sense of the community—which he seemed to believe rested on religion—and to the toleration of his neighbors whose votes he desired. After all, he admitted that he was “not a member of any Christian Church.”

He was what we would today call a “None.”

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