Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Lincoln's birthday

From last Feb 12:

"...that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain - that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom - and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth."
Lincoln, November 19, 1863

Once upon a time we celebrated the birthdays of our greatest Presidents on the anniversary of the actual day upon which each was born. Today is the birth day of Abraham Lincoln. And, appropriately, today I received the March issue of First Things with an article by Andrew Ferguson, "Lincoln and the Will of God," which they have made available online. Ferguson, of course, is the author of Land of Lincoln, a book about the meaning of Lincoln to Americans as much as about Lincoln himself. From the article:
.... For generations, Americans have liked to say they wanted their children to be like Lincoln: principled, resolute, patient, kind. But what we’ve really wanted is for Lincoln to be like us, whoever we are.

Nowhere has the appropriation been as relentless as in the matters of religion and Lincoln’s spiritual life. Mary Baker Eddy claimed the martyred president as an early proponent of Christian Science, though her discovery of Divine Healing came a year after his death. In the early 1900s, the California guru Paramahansa Yogananda announced that Lincoln had once been a yogi in the Himalayas.

Closer to earth, the evangelizing atheist Robert Ingersoll tagged him as a model of the freethinking skeptic, and the founders of the Ethical Culture Society agreed. In the 1920s, Cardinal Mundelein of Chicago asserted that Lincoln—who was reared by Baptists, married by an Episcopalian, and subjected in his adulthood to endless hours sitting in straight-backed pews being preached at by Presbyterians—was nevertheless a man of closeted Catholic faith, who delighted in laying out an altar for Mass whenever his Catholic aunt came to visit.

Not every attempt to enlist Lincoln is far-fetched, of course, and a good deal of energy has been expended in simply trying to figure out what religious convictions Lincoln held, if any. [....]

“I don’t know anything about Lincoln’s religion,” a longtime friend, David Davis, remarked after Lincoln’s death, “and I don’t believe anybody knows anything about it.” Though Davis’ skepticism should give pause to more historians than it has, he overstated the case. We will never know for sure whether Lincoln held orthodox Christian beliefs, whether he believed in the Trinity, the divinity of Christ or his resurrection, the life everlasting, the forgiveness of sins, the inerrant word of God as revealed in the Old Testament or the New.

But perhaps the country has benefited from not knowing. The uncertainty has made Lincoln our common property, whoever we are, from Robert Ingersoll to Cardinal Mundelein to Nettie Maynard. It may be indeed that Lincoln’s is the only kind of religious expression that will travel in a free country like ours. His religion has lasted a century and a half and has appealed to believers of all kinds, and to skeptics too, exactly because of its generality. Yet it still means something definable and concrete: The country, Lincoln believed, is the carrier of a precious cargo, a proposition that is the timeless human truth, and the survival of this principle will always be of providential importance. We assent to Lincoln’s creed, wide open as it is, when we think of ourselves as Americans. [more]
FIRST THINGS: A Journal of Religion, Culture, and Public Life