Sunday, February 12, 2017

Compare and Contrast—The Religion and Spirituality of Lincoln and Trump

One of these things is not like the other.

Note:  This post on the spiritual life of Abraham Lincoln is an annual fixture here on his birthday.  But it remains ever relevant.  No more so than now.  The latest—and perhaps last—Republican President could not have a more starkly different religious life than the first and greatest. 
Abraham Lincoln spent a life time wrestling with the deepest religious and spiritual questions.  He kept his personal beliefs generally close to his vest.  Although not a conventional Christian, he knew the Bible intimately from thousands of hours of reading and study and could quote chapter and verse with ease.  He was a deeply moral man who agonized over the consequences of his decisions and actions and never let himself off the hook with facile excuses. 
Donald Trump, on the other hand, although a nominal Presbyterian and self-declared good Christian, seems totally unaware of the basic precepts of his professed faith and actually ignorant of basic Biblical literacy.  During the campaign he famously fumbled questions about favorite Bible verses and the teachings of Jesus.  At the National Prayer Breakfast the morning after his inauguration TV cameras caught him fidgeting in the pew and obviously bored by the proceedings.   Then, when it his turn to speak he delivered rambling, incoherent remarks including bragging about the ratings on Celebrity Apprentice, chiding his replace Arnold Schwarzenegger who had been critical his climate change denial and environmental recklessness; and asking the worshipers to pray for the show’s ratings.  These are the action of a man with no serious faith of his own.  Likewise, like any classic narcissist, he his only morality seems to be the notion that any criticism or slight to him is “unfair.”  But he displays absolutely no moral  compunctions  in his own behavior—he will do or say anything that pleasures or advantages him no matter the consequences to others.  He is a man for whom the Golden Rule is not only empty words but is completely unfathomable as a concept.

Jim Bakker, America's #1 religious fraud and huckster is sure he knows the answer...
Despite this, the most rabid elopements of the Religious Right embraced him and anointed him as a fulfillment of prophesy.
If Trump’s religion is facile and fraudulent, Lincoln’s is endlessly fascinating.
Back in 2009 the nation was in the grip of a wave of Lincoln mania in conjunction with the bi-centennial of his birth.  There was an avalanche of new books and articles examining every aspect of the Great Emancipator’s life, work, and connections.
The Religious Right—those who were not also neo-Confederates anyway—was busy, as usual, trying to retroactively adopt him as an Evangelical Christian.  On the other hand the small world of the Unitarian Universalist blog-o-sphere and a spate of sermons, tried to lay claims that Lincoln was, at least in spirit, a Unitarian or a Universalist.
Scott Wells, a leading Universalist and Christian blogger from a Southern background claimed to be immune to the cult of Lincoln worship.  For his family Lincoln represented oppression, destruction, and, for them, the nightmare of Reconstruction.  He also scolded U.U.s for trying to appropriate Lincoln into our ever popular lists of famous UUs.
The following is adapted from my response to Wells.
Hagiography aside, there are many reasons to put your understandable regional bias aside and spend some time studying Abraham Lincoln.  As flawed and inconsistent as any man, he is still rewarding for the subtlety and depth of his thought and his life-long struggle to reconcile a true and deeply held idealism with both personal ambition and the need to act in a brutal and unforgiving environment. Even Harry Truman, a Missouri Democrat whose unreconstructed Confederate mother never forgave him for making Lincoln’s Birthday a national holiday, came to deeply admire his ancient tribal enemy.
Lincoln summed up his view.

Lincoln’s relationships to religion are not a murky as some suppose. Certainly any denomination that would attempt to claim him as its own is self-delusional. Here is some of what we know.
  • At no time in Lincoln’s life did he ever claim to be a Christian as understood in his time or to be saved.
  • As far is known he was never baptized and never became a member of any church.
  • Among his earliest published writings were attacks on a political rival, Peter Cartwright, a fire-and-brimstone Methodist circuit rider who had accused Lincoln of infidelity and had used his wide Methodist connections to build a Democratic political operation.  The articles, which appeared under a nom de plume, mocked both the man’s religion and his attempts to use his followers as a political base.  Lincoln claimed never to have “denied the truth of Scripture” but did acknowledge that he was not a church member.  Lincoln defeated Cartwright for a seat in Congress, but Cartwright’s charges that he was an infidel—and his own tart responses—would dog him for years.
  • Like most self-educated Americans who had literary aspirations and who were not versed in the Latin and Greek of the Eastern college educated elite, Lincoln had two primary sources to draw from for both inspiration and style—The King James Version of the Bible and the popular plays of William Shakespeare.  He knew both.  But his writing was infused with the cadences and majesty of the Bible. He could also, if the occasion called for it, usually in response to some hypocrisy from the mouth of a believer, quote verse with ease.
  • He deeply admired Thomas Jefferson and treasured the Declaration of Independence as the essential founding document. He borrowed from Jefferson, and from George Washington, the language of Deism in public discourse. He frequently spoke of Providence, Creator, and other Deist constructions. He did not avoid the word God as they usually did, but he did not invoke an explicitly Christian God. One can search in vain for much use of the words Christ or Savior outside of the context of letters of condolence to the families of fallen soldiers often echoing back sentiments expressed by the bereaved. He was all for giving whatever comfort he could.
  • In Springfield he attended Mary’s Presbyterian Church and was friendly with its minister but never joined the church or partook in the Spartan Presbyterian communion.  That hasn’t stopped that congregation from calling itself “Lincoln’s Church” to this day.
  • Despite the claims by some, Lincoln was no Unitarian but did avidly read the sermons of Transcendentalist, abolitionist, and social reformer the Rev. Theodore Parker and famously paraphrased him in speeches.
  • He read the published sermons of both William Ellery Channing and Theodore Parker and appropriated or adapted words from each—especially Parker—in his speeches. But in practice as President, despite a personally cordial relationship with Radical Republican Senator Charles Sumner, he found Abolitionist Unitarians to be pig-headed impediments to a practical prosecution of the war and a move toward healing a post-war, re-united country.  Despite this the UU congregation in Springfield proudly adopted his name.

But in practice as President, despite a personally cordial relationship with Radical Republican Senator Charles Sumner, he found Abolitionist Unitarians to be pig-headed impediments to a practical prosecution of the war and a move toward healing a post-war, re-united country.  Despite this the UU congregation in Springfield proudly adopted his name.

Maybe Abe was a prophet after all...
In the post-war years both the Abolitionist preachers with whom he sparred during the war and a generation of new Unitarian leaders bloodied on the battlefields of that war—Jenkin Lloyd Jones being a prime exampleparticipated in the myth making that turned the martyred President into a kind of a Saint. They went too far. And rubbing the defeated South’s nose in it exacerbated the regional disdain with which continues to deepen.

But I think many modern Unitarians and Universalists can find much with which to resonate in Lincoln’s personal spiritual journey.  It so resembles so many of our own.

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