By Michael Lynch
I’ve often heard people claim that Lincoln wouldn’t be a viable candidate in this age of televised elections, with his homely face and backwoods speech. Maybe that’s true, although I think it reflects as badly on our superficial, image-driven culture as it does on Lincoln’s unpleasant appearance.
Even if Lincoln were around today, and even if he had the sort of bland good looks that seem to be standard issue for modern politicians, I suspect religion would be almost as likely to keep him out of the White House. Values voters in the Republican Party are wrestling with the importance of a candidate’s religious affiliation as they mull over the prospect of voting for Mitt Romney, a man who shares many of their concerns but not their beliefs. Robert Jeffress, pastor of First Baptist Church in Dallas, put the matter in explicit terms by asking, “Do we want a candidate who is a good, moral person, or one who is a born-again follower of the Lord Jesus Christ?” Some values voters insist on the latter.
How would Lincoln have fared in today’s contest to win the evangelical vote? It’s hard to say. The insistence of Jeffress and others who argue that born-again Christians should vote for fellow believers would put Lincoln in an awkward position. He never spoke of undergoing a conversion experience, never referred to any personal relationship with Jesus, and never formally made a profession of faith or joined a church. As far as Mary Todd Lincoln herself knew, “Mr. Lincoln was not a technical Christian.” (One caveat here: There are a few anecdotal accounts of Lincoln undergoing a secret baptism in 1860, but this notion is highly unlikely. Details in these stories don’t square with verifiable dates, times, and distances. Besides, in Baptist churches immersion is a form of public testimony as well as a rite of initiation. A secret baptism seems a little pointless.)
In fact, Lincoln’s non-adherence to any specific church was a political issue during his lifetime. After a disappointing attempt to run for Congress in 1842, he complained that “it was every where contended that no ch[r]istian ought to go for me, because I belonged to no church, was suspected of being a deist, and had talked about fighting a duel.” When he ran again in 1846—this time successfully—against the evangelist Peter Cartwright, rumors that Lincoln was “an open scoffer at Christianity” became so troubling that he wrote and distributed a handbill defending himself:
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 of 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, of 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.
For voters who think religious affiliation is a deal-breaker when it comes to picking candidates, a resurrected Lincoln would present a frustrating figure. There is, however, a flip side to this coin. It’s also possible that Lincoln’s frequent, explicit, and public invocations of God and the Bible would actually endear him to the Religious Right. After all, he littered his speeches and proclamations with references to Scripture and infused them with theological themes. In his second inaugural address, he spoke of collective sin, judgment, and the unknowable purposes of God. Indeed, modern-day secularists who squirm at civic religion might react with horror if a president interpreted a bloody war in this manner.
Identity politics and religious affiliation both operate on the basis of categorization, and easy categorization is extremely difficult to achieve when it comes to Lincoln’s beliefs. The subtleties and complexities inherent in his thought might confound our attempts to label him, but they also help explain why so many people of varied religious, political, and cultural persuasions have been willing to claim him as their own.
—Michael Lynch graduated from LMU with a degree in history, worked at the Abraham Lincoln Library and Museum as an assistant curator, and now teaches survey-level history courses on campus. He holds an M.A. in history from the University of Tennessee and blogs about historical topics at pastinthepresent.wordpress.com.