Monday, February 19, 2007


On the day when we honor the contributions of Presidents Washington and Lincoln*, it may be appropriate to remind ourselves that Christian orthodoxy is not a prerequisite for good public service. But it is also true that these greatest of our presidents believed firmly in Providence.

Fondly do we hope, fervently do we pray, that this mighty scourge of war may speedily pass away. Yet, if God wills that it continue until all the wealth piled by the bondsman's two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash shall be paid by another drawn with the sword, as was said three thousand years ago, so still it must be said "the judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether."

With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation's wounds, to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan, to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations. Lincoln, Second Inaugural Address, 1865
In a review of Abraham Lincoln: Redeemer President by Allen Guelzo, Richard Ostling wrote:
The religious aspect of the tale, in a nutshell: Lincoln was unable to believe, but was never comfortable in his unbelief. Youthful skepticism gave way to deeper respect for religion. And during the devastation of the Civil War, Lincoln's self-made theology reshaped American history. The key to Lincoln's belief system was a roughhewn version of predestination that he absorbed from his parents' churches.

In Kentucky, Lincoln's parents were devoted to the hard-shell Primitive Baptists; later in his boyhood in Indiana, his father and stepmother joined the slightly more moderate Separate Baptists. Both were rigidly Calvinistic. Young Abe had little interest in his parents' churches. And while living in New Salem, Ill., in 1834, he wrote a "little Book on Infidelity" that contemporaries said attacked the divinity of Jesus and the special inspiration of the Bible. Then 25, he considered submitting it for publication but friends persuaded him to burn it.

That was fortunate, since Lincoln was just launching a political career. ...

Lincoln had many chats with the Springfield pastor, James Smith, who recounted that unlike most skeptics, Lincoln was "a constant reader of the Bible?' That was obvious in ... the magisterial Second Inaugural Address ("let us judge not that we be not judged").

Smith said Lincoln believed some form of providence was at work in the universe, but was unable to believe in a personal God or in Jesus as his savior. That amounted to Unitarianism, but Lincoln had no interest in that liberal denomination....

Early in the Civil War, with the North's effort sputtering, Lincoln came to believe that defeat was inevitable if the war was being waged only to save the Union, not for a higher moral cause.

At a crucial cabinet meeting after the Battle of Antietam in September 1862, Lincoln astounded his colleagues by saying he had made a vow to himself and - he added after a pause - "to my Maker": If God allowed the North to repel Lee's Confederate invasion, it would then be Lincoln's duty to abolish slavery....

When the Emancipation Proclamation was issued the following January, Lincoln added this conclusion, at the prompting of Treasury Secretary Salmon Chase: "Upon this act, sincerely believed to be an act of justice, warranted by the Constitution upon military necessity, I invoke the considerate judgment of mankind and the gracious favor of Almighty God?"

When Mary Lincoln, the daughter of Kentucky slave-owners, questioned the president about abolition, he looked heavenward, son Robert recalled. "I am under orders," Lincoln told his wife, "I cannot do otherwise"
Source: Richard N. Ostling book review as republished at Lincoln's Religion

President Washington had a more conventional relationship with Christianity. He was an active member of an Anglican parish, and a firm believer that God moves in history.

"The blessing and protection of Heaven are at all times necessary but especially so in times of public distress and danger — The General hopes and trusts, that every officer and man will endeavour so to live, and act, as becomes a Christian Soldier defending the dearest Rights and Liberties of his country." George Washington, 1776

I now make it my earnest prayer, that God would have you, and the State over which you preside, in his holy protection, that he would incline the hearts of the Citizens to cultivate a spirit of subordination and obedience to Government, to entertain a brotherly affection and love for one another, for their fellow Citizens of the United States at large, and particularly for their brethren who have served in the Field, and finally, that he would most graciously be pleased to dispose us all, to do Justice, to love mercy, and to demean ourselves with that Charity, humility and pacific temper of mind, which were the Characteristicks of the Divine Author of our blessed Religion, and without an humble imitation of whose example in these things, we can never hope to be a happy Nation. George Washington, 1783
Michael and Jana Novak, authors of Washington's God, write today:
In public as in private, Washington did not address an impersonal, non-intervening god. Neither did he think of God as a promoter of violence. His prayers expect God to be deeply involved in the fate of nations and especially in the cause of liberty. Though Americans and British worshiped the same God, Washington believed that God favored his nation over that of the British because the American cause was liberty.

This belief led him, just two days before the signing of the Declaration of Independence, to issue this order to his troops: "The fate of unborn Millions will now depend, under God, on the Courage and Conduct of this army. … Let us therefore rely upon the goodness of the Cause, and the aid of the supreme Being, in whose hands Victory is, to animate and encourage us to great and noble Actions." ...

In his private letters and public statements as commander in chief and president, Washington seldom missed an opportunity to give praise to Providence and to beg God to continue favoring this nation. In his farewell address, Washington considered his legacy to our young nation and wrote these words:

"Of all the dispositions and habits which lead to political prosperity, Religion and morality are indispensable supports. In vain would that man claim the tribute of Patriotism, who should labor to subvert these great Pillars of human happiness, these firmest props of the duties of Men and citizens. The mere Politician, equally with the pious man ought to respect and to cherish them."
Source: USAToday - What Washington saw in God

*Although apparently this is not, officially, "Presidents Day." It is, rather, the legal holiday observing Washington's birthday.

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