The Blog

Religion, Politics, and the New Obtuseness

Liberals in a tizzy over religious voters and Bush's reelection need a refresher course on the American tradition of religious expression in the political arena.

11:00 PM, Nov 29, 2004 • By CLAUDIA WINKLER
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THE DARKLY BRILLIANT Pat Oliphant's post-election cartoon shows a tiny twerp of a cowboy Bush leading a huge, muscle-bound, headless giant off a cliff. The giant is wearing a T-shirt labeled "The Bush Electorate." Above the label is an emblem: an American flag with, in the place of the field of stars, a cross.

The mood of frenzied caricature of American religious believers hasn't entirely abated in the month since the election. Just last week the San Francisco Chronicle published several election cartoons sent in by readers. One featured a red-state person stabbing a blue-state person with a crucifix.

Beyond the crude animosity toward Christianity they express, these cartoons imply that religious Americans are mindless, violent, and deluded into embracing the country's doom. At bottom, what the two cartoons express is fear of religious expression in the political arena. Far from being exceptional, they are characteristic of a vein of commentary that has flourished in the last month, fraught with warnings of theocracy descending upon the nation and the suggestion that our president claims to take his instructions from God.

One of the principal sources of this strain of comment is undoubtedly dogmatic secularism, but another source must be plain ignorance: ignorance of the American political tradition, filled as it is with religious inspiration, both in our political arrangements going all the way back to the Mayflower Compact, and in our foremost social reform movements, from the abolition of slavery to civil rights. But then it would hardly be surprising if we were reaping the fruit of decades' worth of shallow education about the history of religious ideas in American public life.

Here's a suggestion for a kind of quickie, first-aid remedy: Consider a short text, President Abraham Lincoln's letter to Eliza P. Gurney of September 4, 1864. It expresses ideas about God's controlling role in history, and man's proneness to err, that should be familiar to Americans from the more famous Second Inaugural Address. But because the letter to Mrs. Gurney is less well known, its formulation may spark fresh interest in the struggle of a Bible-saturated president to provide wise leadership in the political world.

(In defense of that qualifier, "Bible-saturated": Three days after he wrote to Mrs. Gurney, Lincoln thanked the "Committee of Colored people of Baltimore" for presenting him with a "very elegant copy of the great Book of God." He wrote, "In regard to this great book, I have but to say, it is the best gift God has given to man.")

Lincoln wrote to Mrs. Gurney in the midst of the war (Sherman had just captured Atlanta) to thank her for the prayers of the Society of Friends. He continued:

The purposes of the Almighty are perfect, and must prevail, though we erring mortals may fail to accurately perceive them in advance. We hoped for a happy termination of this terrible war long before this; but God knows best, and has ruled otherwise. We shall yet acknowledge his wisdom, and our own error therein. Meanwhile we must work earnestly in the best lights he gives us, trusting that so working still conduces to the great ends he ordains. Surely he intends some great good to follow this mighty convulsion, which no mortal could make, and no mortal could stay.

Seeking to do right, the president acknowledges that his own "best lights" are not the same as the perfect purposes of God. Those "great ends" are beyond the power of any mortal to determine and accomplish. Wisdom belongs to God, error even to the man seeking to follow God. Man's portion also, however, is the faith that ultimately God "intends some great good."

Lincoln goes on to mention the Friends' rejection both of slavery and of war. He writes: "Your people, the Friends, have had, and are having, a very great trial. On principle and faith opposed to both war and oppression, they can only practically oppose oppression by war. In this hard dilemma some have chosen one horn, and some the other. For those appealing to me on conscientious grounds, I have done, and shall do, the best I could and can, in my own conscience, under my oath to the law."

Thus, the letter acknowledges that not only presidents but also citizens seeking to live by their religious lights face difficult dilemmas of conscience and principle. There is humility in the recognition that all of them do the best they can--"with courage in the right as God gives them to see the right," as Lincoln has it elsewhere--but perfection belongs to Another.