Remarking that he had never thought Barack Obama’s churchgoing anything other than Chicago politics – “why else would a sophisticated Harvard-educated lawyer sit through years of incoherent ranting by the Rev Jeremiah Wright?” – Damian Thompson suggests that “America has just re-elected its first post-Christian President (unless you count Jefferson).”
Well, you probably should count Jefferson who was an 18th-century Voltairean Deist like David Hume, Edward Gibbon, or the Church of England clergyman, Conyers Middleton (who questioned the Biblical miracles) rather than a Christian. Nevertheless, like Middleton, he continued to believe in the social value, even necessity, of religion and church-going, rather as, I suppose, Barack Obama does.
In The Fortunes of Permanence Roger Kimball quotes an interesting exchange between Jefferson and a friend who encountered him on his way to church.
“You going to church, Mr J? You do not believe a word of it.”
“Sir,” Jefferson replied, “no nation has ever yet existed or been governed without religion. Nor can be. The Christian religion is the best religion that has been given to man, and I as chief Magistrate of this nation am bound to give it the sanction of my example. Good morning, Sir.”
There is however another President, more famous than either Jefferson or Obama, who may fairly be described as post-Christian; and this is Abraham Lincoln.
William Herndon, his law partner in Springfield, had no doubt that Lincoln was a sceptic, influenced by Voltaire and Tom Paine, later impressed by Darwin. “He became a firm believer in evolution.” He did not believe that “Jesus was the son of God any more than any (other) man” or “that the Bible was the special divine revelation of God as the Christian world contends.”
When he was running for Congress in 1846, his Democratic opponent, a Methodist preacher, charged him with infidelity. Lincoln answered with a pamphlet in which he said, cagily, that he had “never denied the truth of the Scriptures “ or “spoken with intentional disrespect of religion in general or of any denomination of Christianity in particular.”
This , as you will observe, is carefully phrased, a nice example of politician-speak. The mental reservation is evident. It’s like saying , “I never accused your wife of being a whore“.
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