Faith Matters but Not Enough to Follow Jesus

This week’s national holiday allowed the Gospel Coalition to don its patriotic colors and wave the flag of civil piety. A post by Thomas Kidd on the faith of George Washington and Abraham Lincoln took a fairly modest line by arguing that the first and sixteenth presidents were not orthodox Christians or even the best of believers. (This concession touched off a debate among the comments on the merits of Peter Lillback’s book on Washington, which is interesting in its own right.)

I believe that Washington, an Episcopalian, was a serious but moderate Christian, but there are reasons to wonder. Whether from personal scruples concerning his worthiness, or some other concern, he never took communion. And he displayed a remarkable aversion to using the name of Jesus in his voluminous correspondence. As Edward G. Lengel’s delightful Inventing George Washington has shown, 19th-century biographers eagerly recalled shadowy memories of Washington being discovered praying privately, to the extent that you’d think the man did little else besides kneeling in the woods. He almost certainly did pray privately, but as a proper Virginia gentleman, he did not wear his faith on his sleeve.

There are graver doubts about Lincoln’s faith, especially early in his life. He developed a reputation as a skeptic as a young lawyer in Springfield, Illinois, and Mary Todd Lincoln concluded that he was not a “technical Christian.” He struggled to put his faith in Christ even as the events of later years took the edge off his religious infidelity. Lincoln grew up in a strongly Calvinist Baptist family, and though he did not embrace all his parents’ beliefs, he became ever-more convinced of the Calvinist doctrine of God’s sovereign rule over human affairs. Richard Carwardine, one of Lincoln’s finest biographers, says that Lincoln presented “his deterministic faith in a religious language that invoked an all-controlling God.”

But despite the weaknesses and errors in Washington and Lincoln’s devotion, Kidd tells us not to worry (maybe even adding a pinch of “be happy”).

Evangelical history buffs spend a lot of time speculating about the personal faith of great historical figures such as Washington and Lincoln. This is an important topic, but there’s a sense in which, for historical purposes, it doesn’t really matter if these presidents were serious Christians. When you broaden the scope of the question, it is easy to demonstrate that religion was very important to both of them. Both endorsed a public role for religion in America, and Lincoln particularly employed religious rhetoric, and the words of the Bible itself, to the greatest effect of any political leader in American history. For Lincoln and Washington, a secularized public square was inconceivable.

So even if we won’t trust these presidents’ profession of faith, we should trust them on the importance of religion to public life. In fact, Kidd even believes that the presidents’ pro-religious views accounts for their political accomplishments.

So yes, I would love to know exactly what Washington and Lincoln believed personally about Jesus. But there’s no question that, in a public sense, faith mattered to them a great deal, and featured centrally in their concept of a thriving American nation. Their reverence for faith’s vital role in the republic helps account for Washington and Lincoln’s greatness.

This is another case where 2k would allow for sound historical and political judgment without having to contort the gospel in the process. After all, if Lincoln and Washington succeeded simply by being pro-faith, what reason would they have for trusting in Christ truly? Kidd does not consider that these presidents might have been less successful because an explicit embrace of Christianity and establishing policies in accord with such support would have violated the Constitution and alienated some voters (especially Roman Catholics who were not so willing to separate morality from theology). For a coalition dedicated to the gospel, it is an odd admission to suggest at TGC’s website that any religious affirmation less than the gospel will do. Not to mention that the kind of utilitarian and generic faith that Washington and Lincoln promoted makes it harder for the gospel to get a hearing since, again, things go as well with a generic Christian God and his morality as they do with an orthodox Christ and the good works that follow from faith.

At the same time, 2k would allow Kidd and his TGC editors to give as many thumbs as they have up to the first and sixteenth presidents — that is, of course, if you agree with the Federalists and Republicans. Since Washington and Lincoln were officers of the United States, the criteria for evaluating their presidencies should not be religious or quasi-religious but political. 2k allows a Christian to esteem Washington and Lincoln without having to run them through the grid of where they come down on the gospel, the deity of Christ, or how many times they invoke, in Washington’s less than orthodox phrasing, “the benign Parent of the human race.”

20 thoughts on “Faith Matters but Not Enough to Follow Jesus

  1. A most excellent objection, sir. I suppose you could be part of the g coalition and not agree with Kidd about being pro-faith being good. But what about if you disagreed about Washington and Lincoln being great? Isn’t part of the apologetic approach of evangelicals to assume that the majority will be on your side if only you can be normal enough to agree with the majority? And doesn’t the majority assume that to be against Lincoln is to be racist?

    Eisenhower: “It’s good to believe, and I don’t care what you happen to believe.”


  2. Darryl:

    An aside to the point and a tidbit of history. Lincoln often walked across the street to attend “Evening Prayer” (BCP 1789) at St. John’s Episcopal Church. Purposefully, he quietly entered after the service started, sat in the last pew, and unobtrusively left before the service ended. I recently asked a Lincoln scholar, Dr. Allen C. Guelzo, where Lincoln stood re: Anglican Churchmanship. Interestingly, Lincoln was asked a similar question, to wit, “What is the best denomination to belong to?” Lincoln’s response (in essence)? “Probably, the Episcopal Church because you don’t have to believe anything.” That was impoverished, but something drew him during those dark and depressing days. I can’t help but muse on Lincoln’s brooding thoughts as the “Third Collect against all Perils” was read: “LIGHTEN our darkness, we beseech thee, O Lord; and by thy great mercy defend us from all perils and dangers of this night; for the love of thy only Son, our Saviour, Jesus Christ. Amen.” Also, Lincoln never communicated at the Lord’s Table when present for Holy Communion. Whatever his theology, he held the Union together.

    Also, more to larger points, John Frame’s book arrived last night. Interesting.


  3. Gerhard Forde: “At the betrayal in the Garden of Gethsemane when the crowd comes out against Jesus with swords and clubs, the disciples still want to do their bit for God. They want to take up the sword and risk their lives, perhaps, and fight. One of them grasps a sword and cuts off the ear of one of the assailants. But Jesus will have none of it: “Put up your sword,” he says, “for there is absolutely nothing you can do!”

    “In Luke’s account, Jesus even stretches out his hand to undo what the disciple had done–he heals the wounded man. At that point, no doubt, everything within us cries out in protest along with the disciples. Is there nothing we can do? Could we not try to influence the “power structures”? But the unrelenting answer comes back, “No, there is nothing you can do, absolutely nothing. If there were something to be done, my Father would send legions of angels to fight!”


  4. Darryl:

    Kidd’s assessment of both Washington and Lincoln as to their faith–personally unclear though conventionally religious –is fairly prosaic. We both know that. And his conclusion that their civil religion had its usefulness is also not an unusual historical judgment.

    I simply want to be clear on what your evocation of 2K here means. Are you disagreeing with Kidd’s assessment and, if so, what exactly is the play of 2K here? Or are you saying something about Washington and Lincoln with respect to 2K? Thanks, Darryl, if you are able to clarify.


  5. Arguments about Lincoln’s faith will go nowhere, but I did find it interesting reading the bio, “A. Lincoln,” which came out several years ago, that Lincoln regularly attended an Old School Presbyterian Church pastored by a student of Charles Hodge, having explicitly rejected attendance at a New School Church because of political sermons. Lincoln appears to have been a 2Ker!


  6. Alan, my point is that without 2k many Protestants try to find religious grounds for appreciating political leaders. In this case, Kidd has to appreciate to figures who do not share the Gospel Coalition’s apparent commitment to the gospel. That seems odd.


  7. Thanks, Darryl.

    As I read Kidd, he appears to be addressing the common concern among evangelicals–“was this important historical figure a real Christian?”–by noting that whether they were or not, religion played some significant role in their administrations. And it certainly did, though not perhaps in the ways that evangelicals would like to see it, especially with respect to the question of the personal religious beliefs of Washington and Lincoln.

    Kidd’s treatment, again, seems unexceptionable. It does contain some judgments that other historians may wish to dispute but there’s solid evidence for all that he says with respect to Washington and Lincoln. Surely you don’t mean that one should simply not talk about the role that religion generally or Christian faith particularly may or may not have played in their lives and administrations.

    Kidd does seem keen to alert his readers to what he sees as historical reality: that Washington and Lincoln believed what they did, though they likely did not take the view of things that TGC does. He seeks to appreciate them on their own terms, indicating that, while not conventionally Christian, or evangelical, in some ways, religion did play a role and here’s the role. Why could not a GC reader think, “We’re not sure about the personal faith of these men but, whatver it was, here is the role religion played.” Now TGC readers may be very critical of that role, dismissising it as mere “civil religion” or something of the like but it still indicates the role that religion, in some fashion, played.

    Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address, which Kidd cites, is a remarkable piece. I think that its multi-layered complex view of God and providence makes it the most fascinating political address in American history. That’s my opinion, of course, but the Second Inaugural does give an intriguing interpretation of a highly religous era.

    Historically, as you know, Calvin’s 2K view, e.g., was simply that God ruled in all realms but not in the same way in the state, say, as He did in the church, there being a particularly redemptive rule in the latter. I don’t see how having that conviction, which I have, makes me read differently the same evidence that Kidd did and come up with something quite different.

    Since Kidd is at a Baptist institution he may have some version of a 2K approach as Baptists historically would. It sounds as if 2K in your usage is being reified into some sort of worldview or grid through which all is seen or sifted. That’s not the way that I read its historic usage, either among the continental men or the Scots (and their heirs in this country). Thanks for helping me as I seek to grapple with this.


  8. I don’t think it’s being baptist that would make Kidd think that being religious even if not orthodox Christian is a good thing in politicians. I continue to wonder why so many folks think being more religious makes magistrates more trustworthy than those less religious.

    Everybody knows that Luther said— “A smart Turk makes a better ruler than a dumb Christian”.
    But I have copied out some other quotations from Martin Luther’s “On War against the Turk”, 1529.

    “Let the Turk believe and live as he will, just as one lets the papacy and other false Christians live.”

    “In this matter subjects are in duty bound to follow, and to devote their life and property, for in such case one must risk his goods and himself for the sake of others. In a war of this sort it is both
    Christian and an act of love to kill the enemy without hestation, to plunder and burn and injure him by every method of warfare until he is conquered…. In such a case let the proverb apply, “God helps the strongest.” This is what Abraham did when he smote the four kings, Genesis 14; he certainly slaughtered many, and showed little mercy until he conquered them. Such a case must be regarded as sent by God as a means to cleanse the land for once and drive out the rascals.
    (Luther’s Works, vol. 45 Fortress Press, 1962, pp. 124-125.)

    Luther about Muslims– “a destroyer, enemy, and blasphemer of our Lord Jesus Christ, a man who instead of the gospel and faith sets up his shameful Mohammad and all kinds of lies, ruins all temporal government and home life or marriage, and his warfare, which is nothing but
    murder and bloodshed, is a tool of the devil himself. See then! He who consorts with the Turk has to be a party to this terrible abomination and brings down on his own head all the murder, all the blood the Turk has shed, and all the lies and vices with which he has damaged Christ’s kingdom and led souls astray.”


  9. This is what Luther actually said according to Rod Rosenbladt: “If you have a choice between a Jew or a Turk who understands justice and a Christian who does not elect the Jew or Turk.”


  10. Alan, I am not sure how affirming civil religion is congenial to evangelicals — though I know they do this — when liberal Protestantism was a version of civil religion. But if the point that it is better to have some kind of believer rather than an atheist, then do you think the Co-Allies could appreciate Obama? He does talk about Christianity a lot. Or what about Kennedy, who was Roman Catholic and affirmed Christian “values”? And what about Romney? How far will religion friendliness go? Or is it selective?

    Again, 2k allows complete innocence from such arbitrary evaluations. You appreciate a statesman on political grounds, not on the degree to which he supported or encouraged your tribe.


  11. Darryl:

    That’s helpful. You’re seeing Kidd as saying prescriptively that, whatever the personal religious faith of Washington and Lincoln was, they had religious beliefs of some sort that ennobled them and their administrations.

    Surely you’re not saying that their religious beliefs are irrelevant. This flies in the face of natural law, Aquinas and Calvin, for instance, both taking some comfort in the reality that though pagans might reject the Scriptures and the Church, nonetheless something comes through because the works of the law are written on the hearts. Because man is in imago dei and enjoys the sensus divinitatis, he cannot escape that he is sealed at heart as a law creature. This outer and inner witness (Romans 1 and 2) is not saving, but inescapable.

    Why would it be markedly different for a Washington and Lincoln to get such, whether through general or special revelation–the culture was saturated with it–and to have non-saving religious beliefs? After all the second use of the law is for civil society.

    Part of the problem is what you mean by “political grounds.” How is that to be defined, particularly in abstraction from everything else? Is this abstracted from moral and religious ground? Are you abstracting natural law from “political grounds?” I don’t think that you or I or anyone else knows what “political grounds” means in the way you seem to be using it. Politics is not something that excludes notions of morality and if for Washington these were in some way religiously informed, as they are for everyone, then I don’t know what you mean by political. You seem to be reducing the totality of the statesmen to something called the political and then somehow absolutizing the politcal and reading, with resepct to the statesmen, everything through that lens. What makes up the totality of the statesmen is something more than the political reductionistically considered.


  12. Alan, what I am saying is that evangelicals who affirm the religion of the president who is not evangelical make their own faith irrelevant, and that their judgments are often arbitrary, such as, we trust Washington’s “Almighty Parent” but distrust Obama’s “Christ.”

    I am also saying that this kind of assessment misses what is most important about a political official in the United States where according to the Constitution religion is irrelevant to holding public office. What is most important are the policies a president advocates. In the days when Washington and Lincoln were president, the United States were still very much conflicted over the relative power of the national and state governments. That is a political matter that even Charles Hodge said could not be decided by the Bible. The way you come down on that question has enormous repercussions for the way the United States turn out.

    But by looking at Washington and Lincoln as friendly to religion, Kidd misses that they were not friendly to the states who were anything but united.


  13. Darryl:

    I was in the midst of writing/editing the post above when somehow, apparently, I inadvertantly sent it. I thought it was canceled and did not realize that it had sent until this morning. Sorry for its lack of clarity as I was quite in media res when what is posted was sent.

    Rather than attempt to take up where I was in that post perhaps I will simply pose this as a possible scenario: it was President’s Day and TGC asked Kidd to treat Washington and Lincoln with respect to their faith. How would you have done it? Are you saying that it is somehow illegitimate to examine their religious beliefs and see what role those beliefs may have played in their administrations? Are you denying that they had religious beliefs that played some role?

    I do not see how convictions about 2K or NL or NL2K impact the issue of what the religious beliefs of Washington and Lincoln may or may not have been and how such beliefs played a role in their presidencies. Your claim seems to be that a 2K approach means that a historian should not concern himself with Lincoln’s “religious” views but only his “political” views. Is what Allen Guelzo, for instance, doing in Redeemer President illegitimate? I don’t mean by that “do you disagree with his assessment(s)?” I mean, “was Guelzo doing something illegitimate as a historian?” Am I missing you on this?


  14. Alan, what I am saying again is that a 2k perspective allows a historian or citizen to evaluate a president’s politics without having to address their religion. The question of whether Lincoln or Washington deserve honor does not depend on their religion, though Kidd’s answer and the Coalition’s approval, suggests an embrace of civil religion that is unbecoming the gospel since it doesn’t matter whether or not these men embraced the gospel.

    And what I have also said, and stand by, is that a religious estimate of these presidents avoids difficult political evaluation. If Kidd had wanted to evaluate their policies in regard to the nation’s religious life, that’s fine. But that isn’t what he did.

    I see a difference between Guelzo writing for a series edited by scholars and Kidd writing for a blog run by advocates of the gospel.


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