When People Believe in God . . .

. . . they believe almost anything. That isn’t how G. K. Chesterton’s famous quote goes, but it seems more accurate than the one he actually penned: “When Man ceases to worship God he does not worship nothing but worships everything.” Christians (Protestant and Roman Catholic) believe a lot of stuff that isn’t in the Bible, which is hard enough to believe. And when it comes to national holidays, Christians believe even more stuff that may be comforting but doesn’t have a lick of logic attached to it. Consider Lincoln, the Civil War, and Memorial Day from the perspective of that unbeliever, H. L. Mencken:

Of Lincolniana, of course, there is no end, nor is there any end to the hospitality of those who collect it. Some time ago a publisher told me that there are four kinds of books that never, under any circumstances, lose money in the United States—first, detective stories; secondly, novels in which the heroine is forcibly debauched by the hero; thirdly, volumes on spiritualism, occultism and other such claptrap, and fourthly, books on Lincoln. But despite all the vast mass of Lincolniana and the constant discussion of old Abe in other ways, even so elemental a problem as that of his religious faith—surely an important matter in any competent biography—is yet but half solved. Here, for example, is the Rev. William E. Barton, grappling with it for more than four hundred large pages in “The Soul of Abraham Lincoln.” It is a lengthy inquiry—the rev. pastor, in truth, shows a good deal of the habitual garrulity of his order— but it is never tedious. On the contrary, it is curious and amusing, and I have read it with steady interest, including even the appendices. Unluckily, the author, like his predecessors, fails to finish the business before him. Was Lincoln a Christian? Did he believe in the Divinity of Christ? I am left in doubt. He was very polite about it, and very cautious, as befitted a politician in need of Christian votes, but how much genuine conviction was in that politeness? And if his occasional references to Christ were thus open to question, what of his rather vague avowals of belief in a personal God and in the immortality of the soul? Herndon and some of his other close friends always maintained that he was an atheist, but Dr. Barton argues that this atheism was simply disbelief in the idiotic Methodist and Baptist dogmas of his time—that nine Christian churches out of ten, if he were alive to-day, would admit him to their high privileges and prerogatives without anything worse than a few warning coughs. As for me, I still wonder.

The growth of the Lincoln legend is truly amazing. He becomes the American solar myth, the chief butt of American credulity and sentimentality. Washington, of late years, has been perceptibly humanized; every schoolboy now knows that he used to swear a good deal, and was a sharp trader, and had a quick eye for a pretty ankle. But meanwhile the varnishers and veneerers have been busily converting Abe into a plaster saint, thus making him fit for adoration in the chautauquas and Y. M. C. A.’s.

Mencken also takes the wind out of the sails of anyone who favors a two-state solution in Israel but insists that the Confederate States were always misbehaving:

The Douglas debate launched [Lincoln], and the Cooper Union speech got him the presidency. This talent for emotional utterance, this gift for making phrases that enchanted the plain people, was an accomplishment of late growth. His early speeches were mere empty fireworks—the childish rhodomontades of the era. But in middle life he purged his style of ornament and it became almost baldly simple— and it is for that simplicity that he is remembered to-day. The Gettysburg speech is at once the shortest and the most famous oration in American history. Put beside it, all the whoopings of the Websters, Sumners and Everetts seem gaudy and silly. It is eloquence brought to a pellucid and almost child-like perfection—the highest emotion reduced to one graceful and irresistible gesture. Nothing else precisely like it is to be found in the whole range of oratory. Lincoln himself never even remotely approached it. It is genuinely stupendous.

But let us not forget that it is oratory, not logic; beauty, not sense. Think of the argument in it! Put it into the cold words of everyday! The doctrine is simply this: that the Union soldiers who died at Gettysburg sacrificed their lives to the cause of self-determination — “that government of the people, by the people, for the people,” should not perish from the earth. It is difficult to imagine anything more untrue. The Union soldiers in that battle actually fought against self-determination; it was the Confederates who fought for the right of their people to govern themselves.

Could it be because Mencken didn’t believe in God he could cut through the shine of the halo and see civil religion for the idolatry it is?


15 thoughts on “When People Believe in God . . .

  1. Idolatry is not too strong a word for this deformed worldview.

    LIam Goligher—-I applaud the greatest country on earth; I honor my Scots-Irish forebears that under waves of persecution in the 16th, 17th and 18th centuries went in waves over the ocean to plant Presbyterian churches in the Carolina’s, in Pennsylvania and further west; I am grateful to God that Huguenots from France and the Reformed from Continental Europe found a peaceful place to settle and pursue their Reformed religion; and that these United States became the power house of missionary endeavor in the 19th and 20th centuries. Whether the rest of Christendom likes it or not they would be in enormous difficulties were it not for American leadership and largesse!

    Of course for my ancestors in Scotland and Ireland the great bugbear was the giant appendage to the south of Scotland. The people on that peninsula had a particular allergy to a thoroughgoing Reformed Church and launched various efforts to destroy it including evicting Presbyterian and Puritan pastors from their churches. What delicious irony it was then, when London newspapers dubbed the colonial revolt in North America ‘the presbyterian rebellion!’

    On this July 4th my prayer is that God would bless this nation and preserve the freedoms that allow the people of God to pursue the worship of God in Christ in peace and promote the gospel in peace.



  2. Hmmm… I guess the “self-determination” of black slaves in the antebellum South didn’t count for much with HLM. It did with Lincoln.


  3. Mark Mccully: “On this July 4th my prayer is that God would bless this nation and preserve the freedoms that allow the people of God to pursue the worship of God in Christ in peace and promote the gospel in peace.”

    Mark, please check out my comments from July 4th 2014…



  4. DGH, no, it wasn’t the slaves who seceded, but Abe thought they should have some say as well about their state. Something to do with the Declaration of Independence and natural law, according to Harry Jaffa. No matter how you slice it, someone comes out the loser on the issue of self-determination.


  5. Sometimes, fighting for one’s own self-determination includes fighting against the self-determination of others. An example of that were the confederate soldiers who fought in the Civil War. For those soldiers were not fighting for the right of Blacks to self-determination. Rather, one of the reasons why some of the Confederate states fought the North was for the right for some to own Black slaves.

    BTW D.G., there were slave rebellions in the South. It is just that the size and the organization of those rebellions weren’t noteworthy enough to call them a ‘Civil War.’

    And for Richard, realize that opposing the slavery of Blacks did not imply that one favored equality for Blacks. Things were a bit more complicated back then.


  6. my link to HL Mencken

    “…the life of kings.” – H. L. Mencken

    above didn’t go through. Whoops!

    Has anyone picked up in the anti-faith dialouge where Mencken and Hitchens left off? Who’s the new voice with which we theists argue with these days, is what I am wondering? Just askin’


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