The Irony of the Lincoln Bible

The Lincoln Bible
The Lincoln Bible
Some bloggers seem to relish being killjoys. I do not. I am not trying to rain on anyone’s parade, especially his inaugural parade.

I googled like mad in the hopes that some better writer had already made the following points. Alas, my searches came to naught.

So I am duty-bound to make the following points myself.

At his inauguration, Barack Obama will lay his hand on the same Bible that President Abraham Lincoln used when he took the oath of office in 1861.

I leave to others the consideration of whether this is a presumptuous and grandiose gesture on Mr. Obama’s part. Or if it will be a beautiful moment when he lays a black hand on the Bible used by the Emancipator of the slaves. Neither of these is my topic.

I just want to point out the following irony involved in using the Lincoln Bible: Abraham Lincoln did not believe in the Bible.


lincoln-readingLincoln was a great man and a great President. I am not trying to upset anybody, or make you question my patriotism or my love for the motherland.

Lincoln was an astute student of the Scriptures. He believed them to be the product of the literary genius of mankind. He spent time reading the Bible throughout his life.

Lincoln said that he respected the faith of his countrymen who believe that the Bible is the Word of God.

But the fact is that he himself did not believe it.

“He was a great talker on the Scriptures and read it a great deal, but he never made any profession,” said Lincoln’s best friend from his youth.

A friend of Lincoln’s in his twenties said: “He always denied that Jesus was the Son of God as understood and maintained by the Christian world. Lincoln attacked the Bible and the New Testament…Sometimes he ridiculed the Bible.”

Like I said, I do not mean to suggest that Lincoln was anything less than a great man. Perhaps when Lincoln ridiculed the Bible, it was just youthful excess.

The fact remains: Abraham Lincoln never embraced the faith of the Bible. He was not a Christian. He never professed to be one. At the age of 37, Lincoln publicly declared: “I am not a member of any Christian church.” This is documented history; I am not making it up.

Of course, one need not be a Christian to be the President of the United States. One need not be a Christian to be a great President.

One DOES need to be a Christian, though, for it to make sense for you to take an oath with your hand on a Bible.

gw-swear-inWhat is an oath? It is when you invoke God as a witness to certify the truth of what you say.

The oath of office of the President of the United States is a promissory oath—it refers to the future. The new Presdient invokes God as the One Who will guarantee his fidelity to his duty as President. The Constitution does not require the new President to lay his hand on anything, and it does not require him to invoke God. Nonetheless, it has become customary for new Presidents to swear to God on a Bible.

When I took the oath to become a cleric of the Church, I laid my hand on the book of the Gospels–as all aspiring clerics do–to call God as my witness and invoke His divine help. For centuries, it was customary in Christian lands for witnesses in courts of law to lay their hands on a crucifix to swear that they would tell the truth.

In all these instances of oath-taking, the object at hand (book or cross) is obviously not itself the divine Witness. The object symbolizes Almighty God because the object is directly connected with God’s Revelation of Himself in history.

If the Bible is a collection of some of history’s greatest literature—as Abraham Lincoln held it to be—then it makes no sense to take an oath on it. A compendium of good books cannot serve as a symbol of the Divine Witness of a solemn oath. You might as well put your hand on a copy of Homer’s collected works or Tolstoy’s War and Peace. It only makes sense to put one’s hand on a Bible to swear if the Bible is God’s Word.

obama-praying(Right now I am not touching the question of how to understand God’s Word, how to read it correctly and profitably. This is no time to get into fundamentalism vs. the historical-critical method, etc. Regardless of such questions, I think we can all agree that one either believes that the Bible is God’s Word, or not.)

So the Lincoln Bible is one ironic little object. Taking an oath on it is an ironic thing to do.

All irony aside, I pray to God Who has revealed Himself by sending His Son, and Who speaks to us in the words of the Scriptures:

Dear Lord, please protect our nation, and protect our new President!

11 thoughts on “The Irony of the Lincoln Bible

  1. Dear Father,

    This posting has made me incredibly sad, and exactly why, I’m finding very hard to articulate. It may have to do with the fact that 10 minutes ago, I finished wathcing “A Man for All Seasons” again. To know what one man suffered for the sake of an oath, makes it difficult to see an oath become an ironic thing to do. It is also sadness for the unbelief of the Word of God. But most of all, I think, it is prayerful tears, to echo your prayer – Dear Lord, please protect our nation, and protect our President!

  2. I just hope Obama doesnt “use God talk” to try to move me. I wont buy. Just live rightously, make the right decisions and I’ll believe you.

    I think no matter how we voted, we all need an Inauguration day Attitude Check. Where is our hope? Not in government. Yet still, we are called to pray…and submit. Yikes! For a full thoughtful evangelical’s post, check out Red Letter Believers at:

    http://redletterbelievers.blogspot.com/2009/01/inauguration-day-attitude-check.html

  3. It is terrible.

    But it is only sad if we ourselves consider the bible symbolically. But the Word is alive…”Scripture can draw us in and then turn and say to us “Thou art the man”. The imagination is a seedbed and the images and stories of the biblical tradition the seed. It yields its fruit in due season.”

    Let us pray that our conversions are as gentle as was David’s when Nathan was forced to make this point.

  4. Actually, I was just reading a book the other day on Lincoln’s faith (or lack thereof) for a Lincoln bicentennial class I am taking. I was a tad surprised to hear that he believed in God but not in Christ, that he used the Bible in political debate but did not purport to live by it for faith-based reasons. But it does not change his status as a hero, or as a great President as you say.

    The professor teaching my class spent all of last week pointing out the things that President Obama was doing to pay homage to Lincoln: swearing in on the Lincoln Bible, eating the Lincoln lunch, following in his footsteps to Washington, etc. I have to say that it was an awe-inspiring moment in history when an African-American man took the Presidential oath on the Lincoln Bible. I only wish I could be more excited instead of feeling so divided inside.

    I pray President Obama continues to imitate Lincoln throughout his presidency.

  5. There’s further irony when you consider the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court who administered the oath ( presumably getting the words right) as Lincoln placed his hand on that Bible. It was Roger Taney (from Maryland) , who authored the “Dred Scott” decision which denied the personhood of African-Americans. One wonders if Obama didn’t know this and want to say “Take that, Roger.”

    If he’s smart enough to do that, why isn’t he smart enough to know that life begins at conception? (Couldn’t resist. sigh.)

  6. Roger Taney was a Catholic, and a faithful one. He was also a faithful interpreter of the U.S. Constitution. Unlike Roe, Dred Scott was a correct interpretation of the Constitution as written. We may not like that fact, but the problem lay with the Constitution, not with Taney’s decision in Dred Scott.

    Chief Justice Taney has been unfairly attacked over the years, but especially so in recent decades, when pro-lifers started trying to outdo the pro-abortion forces by adopting the latter’s use of civil-rights language. Abortion is a question of murder, not of rights; of life, not of liberty. The comparison of Roe to Dred Scott and of abortion to slavery has trivialized the reality of abortion: Whatever the evils of slavery, a 100-percent mortality rate was not one of them.

  7. I’m open to correction as to where “the constitution as written”, (obviously before the 13th and 14th amndmnt) expressly speaks of slaves as property. The “three-fifths” compromise was bad enough, but Taney said Negroes were worth no fifths. Then there’s the blatant racism coursing through the whole text of the opinion, which is not excusable as being of its time, because even for it’s time it’s way over the top. That was apparent even to its opponents who nevertheless still held in “unenlightened” 19th century fashion that blacks were inferior (Lincoln being a prominent example of such an opponent.) Thus Dred Scott being”of its time” doesn’t justify it. IMHO, it’s being authored by a Catholic speaks ill of his faithfulness, not well of it.

  8. Father Baer, read Article IV, Section 2, para. 3 of the U.S. Constitution.

    “Taney said Negroes were worth no fifths”

    No, he did not, and you won’t find a quotation from Dred Scott to support that statement. The 3/5ths compromise concerned the counting of population for the purpose of apportioning “Representatives and direct Taxes . . . among the several States” (Article I, Section 2, para. 3). Dred Scott does not touch on that question at all.

    As for it “being of its time” and the 19th century being “unenlightened,” I did not write either.

    The procedural question in Dred Scott concerned whether slaves were citizens. If they were (thus making Taney wrong on that fact), then the 14th Amendment was not necessary. The fact that Congress considered it so a decade after Dred Scott, and two years after the end of the Civil War, confirms that the Constitution as written did not confer citizenship on slaves.

  9. Scott, the points about “of its time” and “unenlightened” were pre-emptive replies to anticipated objections. (There), I didn’t mean to infer that you wrote them and I was replying to what you wrote.
    In the case of those born in America, personhood confers citizenship and its “civil rights”. Dred Scott was denied personhood by Taney and thus denied citizenship and his civil rights, and unless I’m mistaken, it applied that judgment not just to slaves, but to all blacks. It’s certain that the decision was used by states to that effect. ( In some states, freedmen who had the right to vote had that right taken away after Dred Scott) Roe asked if the unborn also were constitutionally persons and thus citizens with civil rights, saying in black letters that if that was the case they could not be denied their right to life. So they emanated from various penumbras and answered negatively,. They affirmed a woman’s right to privacy, like Scott affirmed a slave owners right to his property, while denying the unborn personhood, citizenship and civil rights, chief among them their right to life. While that denial of personhood is probably not Roe’s “central holding” in legalese, it seems clear there is a parallel between Scott and Roe along civil rights lines. The difference you note is big, though: between the denial of the right to life through murder and the denial of freedom to a class of people.
    And murder shouldn’t be prosecuted as if one merely has their civil rights violated. I’m with you there.

  10. Father, sorry to take so long to respond–the notice of your response got caught by my spam filter.

    Dred Scott was denied personhood by Taney

    “Personhood” is not discussed in Dred Scott at all; citizenship is, and Taney was correct that slaves did not have citizenship under the Constitution–again, that’s why the 14th Amendment was necessary. It’s not correct to say that “In the case of those born in America, personhood confers citizenship and its ‘civil rights'”; neither the Constitution nor state laws at the time defined citizenship in terms of “personhood.”

    One of the issues at stake in Dred Scott–an issue that takes up a sizable part of the decision–is whether state citizenship automatically makes one a citizen of the United States. Taney argued no, and there is good reason to believe that he was correct, because again, the 14th Amendment was necessary to clarify this issue.

    Just as Dred Scott does not touch the question of “personhood” at all, there’s no reason to believe that Taney, who manumitted his slaves shortly after he inherited them from his father and then gave them pensions for the rest of their lives, personally believed that blacks were not persons.

    Roe is a different beast from Dred Scott, and Harry Blackmun is a different man from Roger Taney. Because of the success of the civil-rights movement over the past half-century, it is attractive to draw easy parallels between the two cases and the two men. But not only does it do a disservice to Taney, whom his fellow Catholics used to respect (see the Catholic Encyclopedia entry on Taney at http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/14442c.htm), but it’s a losing battle. As long as we frame abortion in terms of rights rather than murder, and of liberty rather than life, those who make the argument that abortion is a civil right will continue to have the upper hand.

    We need to quit fighting this battle on their terms.

  11. Well put, Scott. Scripsi veritas in caritas. (Don’t check the correctness of the Latin. It’s a compliment.)

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