Lincoln and Religion

Our good friend Chris H. returns for a discussion of religion and The Best Republican Ever.

In 1846 Abraham Lincoln wrote the following about his religious outlook:

To the Voters of the Seventh Congressional District.

A charge having got into circulation in some of the neighborhoods of this District, in substance that I am an open scoffer at Christianity, I have by the advice of some friends concluded to notice the subject in this form. That I am not a member of any Christian Church, is true; but I have never denied the truth of the Scriptures; and I have never spoken with intentional disrespect of religion in general, or any denomination of Christians in particular. It is true that in early life I was inclined to believe in what I understand is called the “Doctrine of Necessity” — that is, that the human mind is impelled to action, or held in rest by some power, over which the mind itself has no control; and I have sometimes (with one, two or three, but never publicly) tried to maintain this opinion in argument. The habit of arguing thus however, I have, entirely left off for more than five years. And I add here, I have always understood this same opinion to be held by several of the Christian denominations. The foregoing, is the whole truth, briefly stated, in relation to myself, upon this subject.

I do not think I could myself, be brought to support a man for office, whom I knew to be an open enemy of, and scoffer at, religion. Leaving the higher matter of eternal consequences, between him and his Maker, I still do not think any man has the right thus to insult the feelings, and injure the morals, or the community in which he may live. If, then, I was guilty of such conduct, I should blame no man who should condemn me for it; but I do blame those, whoever they may be, who falsely put such a charge in circulation against me.

A. Lincoln

July 31, 1846

We see that Lincoln was at times accused of either not being religious or even being hostile to religion. While he admits to not belonging to a church, he also does not express any particular belief. Today, a politician with national ambitions would quickly state their deep and meaningful faith. Instead, he denies having ever spoken poorly of scripture or religion in general. Essentially, he denies ever having denied it. A very nice rhetorical move.

In the second paragraph, Lincoln expresses tolerance for religion. I think that Lincoln, who will later use Christian references and symbols in his speeches, largely values religion as a mechanism for expressing humanistic philosophical concepts. It is of little interest to him as to what others think on the matter of religion and he seems to be a bit a baffled as the why anyone would care as to the content of his religious belief, let alone whether he believes at all.

Yet, we see in his Gettysburg Address and his Second Inaugural Address not only a respect for religion, but depth reflection about questions of justice and mercy. The product of this relection is expressed in very biblical terms. Some have viewed this as evidence of Lincoln’s turn toward a Christian faith. While this may be the case, I do not think it is in the tradition sense. Instead, I view Lincoln as turning to a common language. The common language of Lincoln’s youth and the common language of the people. This is not so much because the people were particularly religious, but because the Bible was the one book that most families had in their homes. At a time of great suffering, Lincoln turned to this share vocabulary.

Lately I have come across writing by two prominent contemporary philosophers who, while not known for being religious, have also been critical, like Lincoln, of those who would a “scoffer” of religion.

The first is Martha Nussbaum, a philosopher at the University of Chicago Law School. In her recent book Liberty of Conscience: In Defense of America’s Tradition of Religious Equality, she blasts the recent rise of new Atheism for being hostile to not only religion, but also to the American tradition of religious toleration. She views them as being little different, in terms of their impact on religious toleration, than religious fundamentalists.

Nussbaum is not a religious conservative at all. Yet, she is a convert to Reform Judaism. She is often reminding other liberals and feminists that they should not discard religion completely, just because of wrongs committed in the name of religion. As a liberal and feminist, I have often needed this reminder myself.

The second is late political philosopher John Rawls. In discussing his loss of orthodox religious faith, he also rejects atheism. I have a lot to say about this essay and will write about it soon.

One of my colleagues at BYU has questioned whether liberal society can really support religion and whether a liberal can really be religious. I am not talking about the old boring debate about whether Mormon and be a Democrat. The question is whether a Kantian liberal can be a Mormon…or…whether a Mormon can be a Kantian Liberal. Well, I am a Mormon Kantian (or a Kantian Mormon). What does that mean? Well, that is what I am hoping to work out. I hope you will follow my journey.


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  1. Best President ever.

  2. DKL should be arriving shortly.

  3. Amen and Amen.

  4. Natalie B. says:

    I have nothing to add to this conversation except to mention that I attended a talk by Nussbaum on her conversion experience, and what I found interesting is that at the time, so far as I can tell, she was agnostic, but was attracted to the rituals of Judaism and the spiritual meaning she found in them.

  5. whether a Kantian liberal can be a Mormon…or…whether a Mormon can be a Kantian Liberal

    I’m doubtful, I think, but I await your argument, Chris. Should be good.

  6. Excuse the potential threadjack, but I would nominate Theodore Roosevelt as the best Republican ever and perhaps second-best president ever. I used to wonder why anyone thought his likeness belonged on Mt. Rushmore until I started hearing and reading more about his presidential legacy, including his work on developing the National Park system, regulating monopolistic big business, regulating interstate commerce, legitimizing labor union concerns, and making food and drugs safer.

  7. Tim J,

    Luckily, I do not think DKL’s issue with Lincoln is related to the post. Either way, I am ready.


    I think her conversion may also have been related to her first marriage. I will have to see if I can find a written account of her conversion. I have many problems with her theoretically but find her to be very interesting.

  8. If it makes you feel better, SLO, TR is tied for second place in my presidential pantheon.

  9. Russell,

    I hope that I am up to the challenge (Ralph Hancock thinks I am just plain crazy).

  10. SLO Sapo.

    I have not made up my mind about TR. But, who am I to question Brad’s pantheon?

  11. SLO,
    4 of my top 5 presidents are Republican. TR is safe at #3 for me.

  12. Your surmises about Lincoln’s depth of religious feeling ring much truer in the case of the Gettysburg Address than the Second Inaugural. First, there is virtually nothing in the former about justice and mercy. There is devotion and dedication and sacrifice–and rebirth. The language is virtually devoid of Biblical allusion–does he get any closer than “this nation, under God”?

    The Second Inaugural by contrast draws deeply on religion. From his musings on the purposes of God–unknowable–and judgment–judge not, lest we be judged–and charity and mercy, the speech is as great a sermon as ever preached. Completely non-sectarian, partaking of the language that his listeners would understand, but not simply a political statement dressed in Biblical language.

  13. Mark,

    The themes of death and a rebirth leading to something more perfect seem to be Biblical allusions to me. It even starts with the creation. These are all parallels between the American narrative and what I know as the Plan of Salvation (is there a more general protestant term for this?). Gettysburg is even a form of Gethsemane.

    The Second Inaugural engages religious concepts more directly, but the Gettysburg Address is full of Christian and Biblical symbolism. It is part of why he is able to say so much with so little. It is also part of his effort to make the American experiment as something almost transcendent.

  14. This is not my own interpretation. Here is one source:

    “Lincoln and the Gettysburg Awakening”
    Glenn LaFantasie
    Journal of the Abraham Lincoln Association, Vol. 16, No. 1 (Winter, 1995), pp. 73-89

  15. Lincoln was the prototypical deist, as far as I know. And of course it must be mentioned that he was the first US president to check the book of mormon out of the library of congress. (Purportedly)

  16. I would likely call him a humanist of some sort, though I think that is that same as saying that he is a deist (with similarities to the later works of Paine).

    I highly doubt the Book of Mormon rumor.

  17. Chris,

    The question is whether a Kantian liberal can be a Mormon…or…whether a Mormon can be a Kantian Liberal.

    Could you give me the cliff notes version of what a “Kantian liberal” is? I haven’t read anything of his since the political philosophy class at BYU ten years ago. I was more excited about Nietzsche. :)

    My thought, if one can be a Randian and a Mormon then no doubt one can be a Mormon and (insert your favorite philosophy here).

  18. “He checked out the Book of Mormon on November 18, 1861 and returned it on July 29, 1862” Along with several anti-mormon books, apparently.


  19. on Teddy Roosevelt, sadly he was probably the last great Republican president.

  20. Matt W,

    I read that book (made the social scientist in me cringe throughout). Knew that I had heard that before. I will have to take a closer look. So, I stand corrected for now.


    I am more a Rawlsian, so my Kantian status is somewhat in-direct. What I mean by a Kantian liberalism is a focus on personal autonomy. An deep appreciation for the choices of individuals and their abilities to chose their own conception of the good life. With this comes a deep commitment to the universality of human dignity. I will indeed need to further flush this out.

  21. (#19): let us not go any further.

  22. Daniel,
    Wrong by at least two counts (says I)

  23. Another reason to like TR: He opined that it was crass and sacrilegious to put the name of God on money.

  24. “Another reason to like TR: He opined that it was crass and sacrilegious to put the name of God on money.”

    …and he championed entering World War I. Enough about TR.

  25. John,

    What am I wrong about (as long as it’s not TR; I’ll respect Chris’s desire to let it drop).


    So essentially Kant is at the core of modern liberalism, if I understand correctly. If that’s the case, I see little dissonance between Mormonism and Kantianism.

  26. DKL has a beef with Lincoln? I’d be interested to read about that. Any links to comments he has made on the subject?

    My understanding of Lincoln is that he read the Bible and gave it serious thought and consideration and even application to his life and problems that he faced.

    Some of his words/writings come across to me as being almost scriptural in their content/style. He has a conviction of what he believes to be true and had a gift for expressing himself.

    Some of that comes across, I feel, in the quotes provided in this post. Most of all, from those quotes, I simply gather that he’s serious and believes in fair play. He has some kind of ethical rules which temper public expression of any feelings he may personally have against organized religion.

    It’s an interesting line that Lincoln walked.

  27. Even though he is a committed, lifeling Republican, I have it on good authority that DKL doesn’t believe in the historical reality of a person called Abraham Lincoln. He views Lincoln as the fabrication of a man who claimed to have converted to Republicanism sometime after Lincoln’s death. Also, he thinks Lincoln’s teachings on equality and social justice are morally and ethically vacuous.

  28. I like both Coolidge and Eisenhower quite a bit and think them both good Republican presidents (in Coolidge’s case, more from temperament than policy, but I’ll take what I can get).

  29. I think there was a time when Lincoln did in fact scoff at or question Christianity and would orate on what he perceived as its problems. While he never became a believer in any denominational sense, he did attend a protestant church on New York Avenue in the capital and he did become more religious or spiritual in his thinking as he bore the burdens of the Civil War. I think we should be careful in trying to make something out of him that he was not. FWIW, both Lincoln and Roosevelt were Republicans when they, not the Democrats, were the liberals in U.S. politics.

  30. I always liked Reagan. I was too young to care about politics (something I’m afraid I’ve never grown out of), but he was funny and had a sort of presidential charisma to him. In that sense, he and President Obama are a lot alike.

  31. Coolidge?

  32. Coolidge is great. My all-time favorite. (big shocker, I know)

  33. Daniel,

    Kant thinks that the good life is one of personal autonomy. This, in a way, is a type of agency. However, Mormonism endorses certain ideas of the good life over others and Kant rejects this. For Kant, autonomy is a moral and politcal principle. The moral aspect of this is the hang-up for religious theorist. Something like that. Russell could likely give a better explanation.

  34. I thought that Coolidge was cool. For a political junkie (and political scientist, I should have a top 5 list. Lincoln is my favorite, but I do not know if I would say he is the best. I just find him the most interesting.

  35. Eric Russell says:

    Chris, I am unfamiliar with Kant’s political writings, but I’ve spent a lot of time with his ethics, and I don’t understand what you’re talking about here. It may well be that he favors a libertarian government, but that has nothing to do with individual morality. I’m aware of no substantive conflicts between Mormonism and Kant’s ethics.

  36. prairie chuck says:

    For someone who believes in personal autonomy I find it curious that one would admire a president who used war to coerce a union of states, who used war to achieve some higher moral ground (union of the states, slavery) and who jailed reporters and politicians who objected.

  37. You probably really hate Captain Moroni, prairie chuck.

  38. Eric,

    He is no libertarian and his political philosophy is not all that well developed, though it does influence that works of many political philosophers. His idea of autonomy is seen to be very different from most religious outlooks. However, I am a Kantian and a Mormon. I do not see it a a problem. That is why I would ask others to clarify.

  39. Did someone mention hating Captain Moroni?

  40. “Kant is at the core of modern liberalism…”

    Many liberals–including some athesists–would dispute this. Until now, I’ve not been familiar with Kantianism, but many liberals feel there is a moral structure for everyone. Take, for example, the practice some Islamist societies treat women as second class citizen–not even allowing them to drive under certain conditions.

  41. Sorry. I pressed “submit” a little early there.

    Where was I—Yes, many liberals, I believe would feel treating women thus would be morally and ethically unjustifible. While others would shrugg and say that works for them as a moral compass.

  42. unqtious (41/42),

    Not sure what you are disputing. Kant also talked about moral structure. In fact most of his major works talk about moral structures: Groundwork of the Metaphysic of Morals; Metaphysics of Morals.
    One of his major influences on philosophy was the introduction of a “categorical imperative”, meaning (basically and to my understanding) that moral decisions are ones that benefit all humankind if all humankind were to act in the same manner. In other words, islamists treating women as second-class would fail the test of being a categorical imperative, and therefore would not be moral. Hope I’m not oversimplifying or misinterpreting, I’m not a philosopher, but I think thats about right.

  43. I’m really no person to debate what Kantianism means. But, you could be right, persecution of women could violate what Kant meant.

  44. prairie chuck says:


  45. prairie chuck says:

    #37 There’s a huge difference between Captain Moroni and Lincoln. Moroni in his own words was fighting in defense of God, family, freedom and religion. Lincoln was fighting to keep the Southern States from seceding. Unlike the Kingmen, the South did not want to take over the gov, did not want to usurp power. The South merely wanted to leave a union of states that they willingly, freely joined. Regardless of the fact that many states’ Articles of Ratification of the Constitution included a provision to leave the union should they decide it was in their best interests to do so, Lincoln and the unionists would have none of it and used force to keep them in a union they no longer wanted to be part of.

  46. Prairie Chuck, # 45, some readings of antebellum history might disagree with your conclusions. The Southern states were viewed by the rest of the Union as wanting to usurp the power of the federal government by waving the banner of states rights, which primarily meant “leave our slavery alone”, and was also used as the basis for preventing federal interference with Indian Removal and other programs that Southern states and politicians viewed as meddling in their internal affairs. Most of those practices don’t look good in the light of later developments.

  47. Mark Brown says:

    Lincoln allowed defeated opponents to retain their weapons. Moroni didn’t.

  48. danithew (#26),

    I think prairie dog might give you a sense of what DKL has to say about Lincoln.

  49. Ummm, that should be Prairie Chuck.

    For a nice intro to Kant’s moral theory:

  50. Lincoln was as exactly deist (note, not even Christian) as he needed to be to be elected in the US, a nation with rather a large number of Christians, as I’m sure we’ve all noticed. At the same time, he was the president to a nation of Christians, and did what was necessary. This doesn’t mean he had any feeling at all for the religion of his country, for better or worse.

    What do I think? He was a deist. God got things spinning, and then exited, not unlike Lincoln himself.
    “In great contests each party claims to act in accordance with the will of God. Both may be, and one must be wrong.
    Abraham Lincoln

    “The Bible is not my Book and Christianity is not my religion. I could never give assent to the long complicated statements of Christian dogma.” Abraham Lincoln

    To speak to the post itself, just because Lincoln availed himself of the rhetorical tropes of the day doesn’t mean he did anything other than use the language that his audience understood.

    If I sound a little miffed, it comes from a seminary teacher (or two?) that tried to convice me that Lincoln was totally Mormon. Totally. Not. Not that he wasn’t the friend of Mormons, as he didn’t care one way or the other as to how many wives a person had, unlike, say, random California Mormons of today who feel that one wife is too many for any given female. (Low blow, but with such a setup, what could I do?)

  51. Sorry for the random typos. And for the heterodoxy, but at least I’m dressed modestly.

  52. Ahem, heteropraxy.

  53. I could be wrong but I believe that the twin prongs of the first Republican convention were the eradication of slavery and Mormonism.

    We’ve come a long way, baby!

  54. Yes, John, the abolition of the “twin relics of barbarism”: slavery and Mormon polygamy.

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