I’m not a huge Lincoln fan. Don’t ask why. It’s complicated, and the zeitgeist doesn’t want to hear it.
Note that I said “not a huge … fan.” I know how to write “I hate Lincoln” and could have written that if I meant that.
And a few days ago, First Things had an article with a lede (“Though Abraham Lincoln was neither baptized nor joined a church of any kind, he was the most spiritually minded president in American history”) that made me think “Ah! At last! A neocon source sees fit to tell one of the less-than-flattering truths!”
I went to read it for confirmation of my pre-existing bias and came away a little less biased. This, for instance, made me afford a little respect for one of his less-than-flattering traits:
So why did he never join a church himself? Two reasons. First, he was offended by the religious rivalry and braggadocio of the frontier preachers of his day. None of them made a compelling case to his lawyerly mind that only one denomination was right and all the others wrong. Further, Lincoln was reticent, “the most shut-mouthed man I know,” as his law partner William Herndon said. He did not want to cross the thin line between sincerity and self-righteousness. There was nothing smug about Lincoln’s faith.
Lincoln’s great achievement was to see the terrible times through which he lived in the context of God’s providential purposes. He referred to America as the almost-chosen nation and came to see himself as a “chosen instrument in the hands of the Almighty.” His firm belief that God is concerned for history and reveals his will in it drew on the wisdom of the Hebrew prophets, the teachings of the New Testament refracted through the tradition of St. Augustine, and the Calvinistic Baptists among whom he grew up.
If “A dog is better than I, because a dog loves and does not judge” (Abba Xanthios), then Honest Abe’s anticipation of Silent Cal is a virtue at least of sorts.
Happy birthday, Mr. President.
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“The remarks made in this essay do not represent scholarly research. They are intended as topical stimulations for conversation among intelligent and informed people.” (Gerhart Niemeyer)