With Malice Toward None

A century and a half ago, a young congressman from Illinois became unpopular with his home constituency and was forced to leave office. It had been rumored that he had little respect for the church or religion; furthermore, he was obviously unpatriotic for opposing the U.S. war with Mexico.

A decade later the same man returned to political life, became a vociferous critic of slavery, and was eventually elected president of the nation. This is the man who in his second inaugural address made one of the most explicitly biblical statements in the annals of the American presidency:

Fondly do we hope—fervently do we pray—that this mighty scourge of war might speedily pass away. Yet, if God will that it continue, until all the wealth piled by the bond-man's two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and every drop of blood drawn with the lash shall be paid by another drawn by 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" (Psalm 19:9).

The life of Abraham Lincoln reminds us of two things about religion and American political life. First, they have always been mixed together. Second, church people do not have infallible political judgment.

As citizens of what the historian Sidney Mead called "the nation with the soul of a church," most Americans have thought from the colonial period on that their religious convictions had something very important to do with their political choices. The present highly visible involvement of Christian and other religious groups in political life, including presidential campaigns, is hardly novel.

But Christians have not always been right about their political judgments, or about the appropriate manner by which to relate faith to public life. Many of our Christian forebears were wrong about Lincoln. We have been wrong in the past and we could be wrong again.

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Sojourners Magazine September-October 1996
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