Is There a Message in Lincoln's Religion for Obama?

Dr. L. John Van Til | Grove City College | Thursday, June 24, 2010

Is There a Message in Lincoln's Religion for Obama?

June 24, 2010

Since the Rev. Jeremiah Wright incident during the last presidential campaign, there has been low-level grousing by many Christians regarding Obama's religious convictions. He has claimed to be a Christian, but there is little traditional evidence of a consistent Christian faith in his life—the most obvious being his failure to join or attend a Christian congregation. Yet, strikingly, and surprisingly, Obama seemed to suddenly make a 180-degree turn in his recent Oval Office talk on energy policy and the Gulf oil crisis.

As he neared the end of his talk, Obama referred to a Gulf fisherman's tradition called "The Blessing of the Fleet." In it, clergy pray for safety and success as they head out to the ocean for weeks at a time. Moments later, Obama said, "Tonight we pray for that courage. We pray for the people of the Gulf." Significantly, he added, "And we pray that a hand may guide us through the storm towards a brighter day." Then he concluded with the standard reference: "God bless the United States of America."

What caught my attention in these remarks is the phrase, "And we pray that a hand may guide us through the storm towards a brighter day." This is a sharp departure from the minimal boilerplate references to "God bless America." While the other two phrases ("we pray") do not state to whom he intended to pray, they do seem to be a step beyond the ceremonial "God bless America." The "hand may guide us" phrase seems to be a step even further towards the time-honored American presidential reference to providence in American affairs.

Perhaps this means that we should now listen to Obama's talks with a more finely tuned ear for references to providence. If President Obama needs a model for this, since he did not likely get one from Rev. Wright, he should look at the example of President Lincoln.

A study of Lincoln's religious experience seems to show a slow but definite religious development. He grew up in the wilderness with little religious training except for the Bible, which was standard reading for all children. The results were not impressive. Lincoln as a young man showed little evidence of any special interest in religion, nor much more while practicing law in Springfield, Ill.

It's true that in many of his political speeches in the 1850s, Lincoln made passing references to the Almighty and to providence, but it was not until he was challenged by the duties of the presidency that there was a marked shift in his religious convictions. This was noticeably evident as the Civil War proceeded. Indeed, we can say that Lincoln came to embrace the Christian faith as he managed the Civil War. Interestingly, Lincoln was shot on Good Friday, 1865, and was scheduled to be baptized the following Sunday, which was, of course, Easter.

Evidence of Lincoln's growing Christian convictions is abundant in accounts of visitors to his office, cabinet meetings, and his own writings. For example, he said, "I am satisfied that when the Almighty wants me to do or not do a particular thing, he finds a way of letting me know it." Cabinet conversations show that he held up on certain decisions so that "the time was right" from a providential point of view. "If it were not for my firm belief in an overriding providence," said Lincoln, "it would be difficult for me to keep my reason in its seat. But I am confident that the Almighty has His plans and will work them out." A famous Lincoln comment on God's plans was in answer to the question whether God was on the side of the North. Said Lincoln, "I am not at all concerned about that, for I know the Lord is always on the side of right. But it is my constant anxiety and prayer that I and this nation should be on the Lord's side." To a close friend he said, "Take all of this book [the Bible] upon reason that you can, and the balance on faith, and you will live and die a happier and a better man." Perhaps the most dramatic expression of Lincoln's new-found faith is found in the second half of his famous second inaugural. I urge readers to Google it.

Is there a message for Obama in Lincoln's religious growth?

Yes, several. First, since Lincoln was one of our greatest presidents, that fact alone might be the basis for President Obama to study him and see how he made decisions. Second, such a study could show President Obama how a Christian view of the world has long been, and remains, a central part of American culture. Third, he might see how Bible reading teaches great wisdom about how to govern and how to live in humility. Finally, in studying Lincoln, Obama will find out that the hand he asked to "guide us" in his Gulf talk is the very providence that Lincoln depended on.

Dr. L. John Van Til is a Fellow for Law & Humanities with The Center for Vision & Values at Grove City College.