Religion in Politics: It’s Not the Certainty, It’s the Doubt

One of the most fascinating columns I’ve read in some time is from the Boston Globe’s Scot Lehigh, his Gay Marriage: A Look Back After 10 Years.  He vividly recalls the turmoil at the State House as conservatives fought to overturn the Supreme Judicial Court’s decision. Lehigh especially decried “fanatics and fundamentalists” “who believed they had a direct line to God.” It’s enough to make many of us wish religion would just go away from American politics.

It never will. Besides the more interesting thing about religion isn’t the certainty; it’s the doubt.

I just finished reading Abraham Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address with my students. Of north and south, Lincoln stated:

Both read the same Bible and pray to the same God, and each invokes His aid against the other. It may seem strange that any men should dare to ask a just God’s assistance in wringing their bread from the sweat of other men’s faces, but let us judge not, that we be not judged.

The language stands as a rebuke through history of those who claim to conduct war under some heavenly grant. The “wringing their bread from the sweat of other men’s faces” is language Lincoln employed several times throughout his life. It is from Genesis 3:19, which recounts the fall of man due to original sin; a parallel with the nation’s original sin of slavery.

“Let us judge not that we be not judged” is from Matthew 7:1. Lincoln is warning us all (especially the soon-to-be-victorious north) that we must be conscious of our own sins and offer judgment only with great humility. A recent application occurred when Pope Francis was asked about gay priests and responded “If someone is gay and he searches for the Lord and has good will, who am I to judge?”

Lincoln went to great lengths in the Second Inaugural to uncover the mystery of a war neither side seemed to want and which lasted beyond what anyone expected, beyond even the existence of the cause of the war. Yet, “The Almighty has his own purposes.”

As I like to point out to my students, there was no “Mission Accomplished” banner hanging up at the Second Inaugural. Far from it. Instead, drawing on Psalm 19:9, Lincoln offers the most chilling words a president has ever addressed to the American people, about the duration of the war:

Yet, if God wills that it continue until all the wealth piled by the bondsman’s two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash shall be paid by another drawn with 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.”

Man does have a role to play in the great task, however:

With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation’s wounds, to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan, to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations.

As Ronald C. White explains in Lincoln’s Greatest Speech: The Second Inaugural, by “charity” Lincoln means the word as it is used in 1 Corinthians 13: And now abideth faith, hope, charity, these three; but the greatest of these is charity.” What Lincoln means, argues White, is charity as love, specifically agape, to love one another, even an enemy, as oneself. This recalls another biblical passage I remember Dr. Martin Luther King reciting from Matthew 5:43: “But I say unto you, Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you, and persecute you.”

I’m glad there are so few “fanatics and fundamentalists” in Massachusetts. I wouldn’t give a nickel for them. But to have the moral lessons of religion in the hands of someone like Lincoln is a priceless treasure.

About Maurice T. Cunningham

Maurice T. Cunningham is Associate Professor of Political Science at the University of Massachusetts at Boston. He teaches courses in American government including Massachusetts Politics, The American Presidency, Catholics in Political Life, The Political Thought of Abraham Lincoln, American Political Thought, and Public Policy. His book Maximization, Whatever the Cost: Race, Redistricting and the Department of Justice examines the role of the DOJ in requiring states to maximize minority voting districts in the Nineties. He has published articles dealing with the role of the Catholic Church in Massachusetts politics and on party politics in the state. His research interests focus upon the changing political culture of Massachusetts.
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