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God and politics: Lincoln’s grace in short supply

Americans, especially during a presidential campaign, are divided about the role that religion should play in the political process.

Americans, especially during a presidential campaign, are divided about the role that religion should play in the political process. While most of us believe that “the state” should be separated from regulating religion, most Americans also believe that the traditional values advanced by Christian-Judeo religious faith are central to the values of the nation.

After the “born again” Baptist Jimmy Carter’s election as president in 1976, it was his 1980 challenger Ronald Reagan, in accepting his party’s nomination at the Republican National Convention in Detroit, who invoked a modern-day standard when he said, “Can we begin our crusade joined together in a moment of silent prayer?” Since that time, the campaigns of major party candidates for president have frequently invoked religious messages, especially Bill Clinton and George W. Bush.

In 2008, Barack Obama has embraced themes of God and religion more comfortably than has John McCain.

In defining where biblically based faith and political issues intersect, today’s Republicans and Democrats have divergent perspectives. To Republicans, pro-life and traditional marriage planks are central to the platform. To Democrats, the social-justice themes of serving the poor and world peace through diplomacy are often advocated. Related issues such as the “right-to-die” and government subsidized stem-cell research further divide the parties and the nation.

Each party has affinity bases
Politically, Republicans have counted on Protestants, including mainline, evangelical and fundamentalist churchgoers, as a dependable part of their base. Democrats have run more strongly with Catholics, Blacks, Hispanics and Jewish congregations of faith.

It may surprise some that it was the nation’s 16th president, Abraham Lincoln, who was perhaps the most God-inspired, prayerful and biblically savvy of our presidents, though he never belonged to a particular church denomination.  His faith writings and legacy as president are chronicled in the book “Abraham Lincoln’s Political Faith” (Joseph R. Fornieri, 2005, Northern Illinois University Press). 

The author notes that it was Lincoln who crafted the Emancipation Proclamation, freeing all slaves, despite relentless public criticism. Lincoln wrote that he believed in abolishing slavery as a “moral obligation to God” that transcended his personal ambitions.

Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address acknowledged that while both the North and South read the same Bible and believed in the same God, that slavery was evil; he tempered that belief, however, with this sentiment, as found in the gospel of Matthew: “Let us judge not that we not be judged.”

Perhaps it is Lincoln’s grace, mercy and forgiveness that seem most lacking in modern-day American presidential campaigns. 

Chuck Slocum is president of The Williston Group, a management consulting firm.  He can be reached at

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