Abraham-lincoln-200 President Abraham Lincoln came to understand the unusual nexus that exists between faith and civil society during his time as our 16th president. During his presidency, with the nation at war, Lincoln heard arguments from both sides that God was in support of the North or the South. He struck an entirely different note when he wrote a private document titled: “Meditation on the Divine Will." This amazing statement is well worth quoting in its entirety.

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 can not 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 this is probably true—that God wills this contest, and wills that it shall not end yet. By his mere quiet 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 contests proceeds.

This type of thinking found its way into Lincoln’s second inaugural address in 1865, almost two-and-a-half years after he wrote the statement. Lincoln reveals a deep hesitancy to represent God’s purposes. He rejects a confident reading of events that typically characterizes the American jeremiad, a course he himself seems to have followed in the Emancipation Proclamation by linking this document with the battle at Antietam.

For Abraham Lincoln, our greatest president, God’s purposes could not be reduced to partisan debates about politics. In the second inaugural Lincoln said: “The Almighty has his own purposes.” (What a wise approach! He acknowledged God's sovereignty but refused to see God as on the side of his political views and purposes.)

Evangelical historian Mark Noll has brilliantly noted that Lincoln “propounds a thick, complex view of God’s rule over the world and a morally nuanced picture of America’s destiny” (Cited by Murphy, 74). I believe we have missed the brilliance of Lincoln’s insights and promoted a particularly troubling brand of civil religion. This civil religion was used by Barack Obama to promote his view of America in the last election, the first Democrat to use this in a generation. It has been used much more prominently by the Republicans since the time of Lyndon Johnson. By not embracing Lincoln’s highly nuanced view our loss as Christians is immense. We have been taken in by the Republican party in many instances, just as Notherners were in the Civil War. We have also been taken in by the Democratic Party, much as Southerners were in the same Civil War. The parties have exchanged roles since the 19th century, at least in some ways, but the problem remains. We want to have a divine mascot on our side thus we link the Bible and God to our cause and beliefs in public.

I am currently writing a series on this issue; i.e., the role of civil religion in American life, its impact on the church and our view of the kingdom of God. I am considering how the use of the jeremiad is employed to seek a better American past while we call the country to repentance and national renewal. I have felt that this wrong use of history is at the root of American civil religion for more than 35 years. I still do. I find that it consistently takes Christians away from the real mission of Christ and his kingdom.

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  1. Richard Kraneis June 1, 2009 at 1:05 pm

    I wanted to reply to your thoughtful blog with what I think is a thoughtful reply.
    I think Lincoln might agree with your “We want to have a divine mascot on our side thus we link the Bible and God to our cause and beliefs in public.” He’d probably have a good story to tell to make that point.
    If historian Mark Nolan said:
    Lincoln “propounds a thick, complex view of God’s rule over the world”,
    I would disagree with that view.
    When it came to his own beliefs, Lincoln didn’t “propound” much at all.
    As a young man in New Salem, IL, Lincoln got into arguments with the pompous Methodist preacher Peter Cartwright as he preached across the region. Lincoln was known for his biting analysis of standard religions as a young 20 year old. I just found a reference that described him as a “village atheist”.
    In his 30’s or ’40’s, political opponents challenged Lincoln as to why he didn’t attend a church and he felt obliged to reply. In a written newspaper editorial he said he had “never denied the existence of God” or something to that effect. Lincoln at that time, studiously avoided any statement that he believed in God.
    But as the years progressed, as he found himself in the middle of the Civil War, the ever adaptive Lincoln changed. I believe Lincoln became a deist who believed he had important work to do for the nation, and the world. I like this quote:
    “Yet it is also the case that the trajectory of Lincoln’s religious life moved in the direction of affirmation; what Allen Guelzo (another Lincoln Prize winner) summarizes in his superb Abraham Lincoln: Redeemer President (1999) as a “Calvinized deism” edged, by the end of Lincoln’s life, toward an openness to, if not precise discernment of, divine purpose.”
    I think Lincoln would appreciate your focus on his 2nd Inaugural Address where he sought to “let the South up easy” while not claiming the North was on God’s side.
    In simple terms, I like to think Lincoln was the most spiritual yet non-religious President we ever had.
    As for me, I’m a reader of about 30 Lincoln books, a Methodist, a frequent visitor of a courthouse in Mt. Pulaski, IL where Lincoln practiced law, and finally, I married a woman whose related to Mary Todd Lincoln.
    Always nice to read thoughtful discussions of Abe.
    Best Wishes

  2. John Paul Todd June 1, 2009 at 6:36 pm

    I’m very interested in the series you are preparing. I think those of us that have served as missionaries see this much quicker than state-side pastors. We are trained in the realities of nationalism as a major factor in any society and how easily it can cross the line of legitamacy and become an idol for Christians in any country.
    But the civil religion of America is in many ways a unique case because the way our nation began and developed with Biblical themes inter-woven so inseparable into the very fabric of our national story. I don’t believe you can make a strong case for understanding how civil religion indeed functions as our only “national” religion in America by going back to say 35 or 40 years in the past. It was well developed by the beginning of the 20th century at least, and you are dead right about the importance on Lincoln and the War between the States as the key to the “legend”.
    If you didn’t see this article some years ago by Harry Stout, its worth a serious read.”Baptism in Blood”.
    I agree with one more thing: and that is understanding this reality in American life is critical to the unity of the Churches and the Missio Dei.

  3. David A. George June 1, 2009 at 11:14 pm

    Thank for your series on Civil Religion, and especially this article on Lincoln. I appreciate the analogy with where we are today on both sides of our political spectrum.
    David George

  4. Laurie M. June 2, 2009 at 1:53 am

    I’ve been so troubled by these things for quite some time – so troubled, especially by folks claiming to know just what God is doing in every hard thing that happens. “This is a judgment for this; that is a judgment for that.” How can we say such things, as though we were not ourselves sinners – as though we were privy to the secret counsels and will of the Almighty? Lincoln showed great wisdom in his “deep hesitancy to represent God’s purposes”. It’s time Christians in America learned from his restraint.
    I’m also troubled by the guiding force the Republican party has been within evangelicalism during my lifetime. Many seem unable to discern which of their beliefs come from the Bible and which from the Republican party.
    So thank you for an excellent post. I look forward to reading your series and will sign up right away.

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