Lincoln and the Use of Civil Religion
One of the most popular areas of recent scholarship on Lincoln has concerned his careful manipulation of the rhetoric of religious faith. If Lincoln did have a conviction against slavery, was it motivated more by Constitutional principles, secular humanism, or some conciliatory, pan-American Protestantism? Some scholars have suggested these questions are important because Lincoln's chief challenges in statesmanship were to respond to the theological crisis of splitting churches and the atheistic scientific movements like Darwinism that challenged the common basis of humanity altogether. Attention to Lincoln's references to God, some historians suggest, reveals his rhetorical genius in founding a modern language of civil religion for the twentieth century.
Historians reflect on the many roles religion played in Lincoln’s presidency.
The « Jon Meacham » School
Meacham suggests that Lincoln’s decision for slave emancipation was chiefly motivated by his personal promise to God after earnestly pleading for a particular military victory. He suggests that Lincoln was deeply spiritual and motivated by his personal relationship with God. The links below discusses the cultural and theological backdrop of evangelicalism in the nineteenth century.
The « Allen Guelzo » School
Guelzo concurs with Meacham that Lincoln’s personal spirituality is essential to understanding his motivations in slave emancipation. However, Guelzo sees his personal beliefs characterized more by spirituality than by absolute conviction about the depravity of slavery.
The « Mark Noll » School
Noll suggests that Lincoln’s careful statements that he was a Christian but not a member of any particular church gave him the political leverage to speak with credibility to a broad variety of Christians who disagreed with each other. Noll suggests that Lincoln’s careful statements that he was a Christian but not a member of any particular church gave him the political leverage to speak with credibility to a broad variety of Christians who disagreed with each other. He is very interested in the “covenant” relationship that Lincoln constructs between the United States and God, thereby sidestepping the interests of particular denominations and philosophies of humanity.
The « Providential » School- Andrew Ferguson
Ferguson suggests that Lincoln was directed by a firm belief in providence. Neither Protestant nor completely non-religious, this worldview was characterized by a trust that God cared ultimately about preserving the nation at any cost.
Wolf and Barton essentially agree with Noll that Lincoln’s concept of Christianity that transcended denominations and regions was new and fit outside of most of the religion of his day. The well researched essay may be juxtaposed with military or executive explanations about what the essential “crisis” of the war was, and how Lincoln strove principally to resolve it. What are the limits, if any, of reading the war as a public and personal crisis of religion? What the methodological blindspots to using this kind of evidence, and what challenges does it pose to other methods of historical research?
Web Bibliographies for teachers:
A great reference list of web resources and books on Lincoln and Civil Religion in the nineteenth century.