Lincoln’s Political Faith

Joe Fornieri is an associate professor of political science at Rochester Institute of Technology and already the author of four books on Lincoln, including Abraham Lincoln’s Political Faith and Lincoln’s American Dream. A fifth, on Lincoln and patriotism, is in train.  Fornieri addressed an American Experiment forum on July 16, 2008.

Joseph Fornieri: In his Lyceum Address of 1838, a young Abraham Lincoln called for a “political religion” to perpetuate the nation’s political institutions. He urged that this political religion be “taught in schools, in seminaries; and in colleges;” that it “be written in Primers . . . in spelling books and in Almanacs;” and that “it be preached from the pulpit….”

In what follows, I seek to articulate Lincoln’s political faith and to show how it was formulated as a response to the competing political religions of his time that likewise appealed to the authority of the Bible and religion to justify their proslavery policies. Subsequently, I will consider the contemporary relevance of Lincoln’s political faith and its compatibility, or lack thereof, with alternative religious interpretations of American public life issuing from the pulpit today.

In particular, I want to consider the Black theology of James H. Cone that Reverend Wright has extolled as an important influence on his own political religion. Remarkably, in an issue devoted to Obama’s faith and politics dated July 21, 2008, Newsweek omitted any reference to Cone’s Black theology and its admitted influence on Wright and Trinity Church. A closer look at this theology is warranted by Obama’s 20-year association with Wright. As Obama himself acknowledges, Wright was the man who converted him to Christianity, who inspired the title of his book (The Audacity of Hope), who baptized his children, who Obama candidly admitted was his spiritual mentor, and that he was “like an uncle” to him. [An ordained minister in the African Methodist Episcopal Church, James H. Cone is the Charles A. Briggs Distinguished Professor of Systematic Theology at Union Theological Seminary in New York.]