Lincoln 1860

Lincoln 1860

Friday, December 7, 2007

Abraham Lincoln's Own Religion Litmus Test

The Founding Fathers of the United States valued the freedom of one's religious beliefs so highly that they listed it first among all the freedoms guaranteed by the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, even ahead of freedom of the press.

Yesterday's speech by Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney in which he vowed to "serve no one religion" brought to mind that Abraham Lincoln faced his own religion litmus test while running for Congress in 1846.

Abraham Lincoln's faith, or lack thereof, has been debated by historians since his death and was a point of contention during his life. Countless books have been written about his religious beliefs, some stating that he was deeply spiritual, while others claim he was a non-believer, nearly an atheist. At the very least, it is true that he never became an official member of any church. However, he did attend services both prior to and after becoming president.

During the Congressional campaign of 1846, Lincoln's opponent was a popular evangelical Methodist preacher of the day, Peter Cartwright. Lincoln decided to attend one of Cartwright's revival meetings after having been accused as being an atheist or "infidel." The following text is taken from Carl Sandberg's "Abraham Lincoln: The Prairie Years":

In due time Cartwright said, "All who desire to lead a new life, to give their hearts to God, and go to heaven, will stand," and a sprinkling of men, women, and children stood up. Then the preacher exhorted, "All who do not wish to go to hell will stand." All stood up—except Lincoln. Then said Cartwright in his gravest voice, "I observe that many responded to the first invitation to give their hearts to God and go to heaven. And I further observe that all of you save one indicated that you did not desire to go to hell. The sole exception is Mr. Lincoln, who did not respond to either invitation. May I inquire of you, Mr. Lincoln, where are you going?"

And Lincoln slowly rose and slowly spoke. "I came here as a respectful listener. I did not know that I was to be singled out by Brother Cartwright. I believe in treating religious matters with due solemnity. I admit that the questions propounded by Brother Cartwright are of great importance. I did not feel called upon to answer as the rest did. Brother Cartwright asks me directly where I am going. I desire to reply with equal directness: I am going to Congress."

The point Lincoln was trying to make to Cartwright was that one's personal beliefs or non-beliefs are just that: personal.

It is disturbing that in the 21st Century, in a country founded on the guiding principle of freedom of religion, that a major presidential candidate has to give a speech defending his religious beliefs in order to cater to a group of people who are intolerant of beliefs which differ from theirs. It is time that candidates for the presidential office remind those citizens that Freedom of Religion means that we Americans are free to choose how we worship, when we worship, or even whether we worship at all.

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