Religion is an all-consuming beast. I suppose that goes with the territory of making universal claims. In the light of the already ponderous influence religion has had on the selection of presidential candidates this year, I recently re-read Abraham Lincoln’s second inaugural address, delivered not long before his assassination. The Civil War was not yet quite over, and Lincoln knew the horror of the situation. He famously said:
Both [sides in the conflict] read the same Bible, and pray to the same God; and each invokes His aid against the other. It may seem strange that any men should dare to ask a just God’s assistance in wringing their bread from the sweat of other men’s faces; but let us judge not that we be not judged. The prayers of both could not be answered; that of neither has been answered fully. The Almighty has his own purposes. “Woe unto the world because of offences! for it must needs be that offences come; but woe to that man by whom the offence cometh!”
Lincoln, never a regular church member, knew his Bible but also knew the soul of his country. A century later Bob Dylan would compose “With God on Our Side,” in protest to another war where divine backing was assumed. When a major undertaking is launched, the Lord is always on the guest list. The problem is, God can’t sit on both sides of the table.
The religicizing of politics is a dirty business. Religion plays so heavily on the emotions that it is, as history has shown, a truly unstoppable force. Even so great a conservative as Barry Goldwater felt this mixing of religion and politics an unholy cocktail. “I am frankly sick and tired of the political preachers across this country telling me as a citizen that if I want to be a moral person, I must believe in A, B, C, and D. Just who do they think they are?” (The Congressional Record, 16 September 1981). So here we go again.
Religion and politics are a dangerous mixture. In a culture as religious as that of the United States, the potential for (and realization of) disaster is great. Think of the lives lost based on the religious outlook of our last president! Over the past few decades we’ve witnessed a parade of preachers, Fundamentalists, believers in New Religious Movements, and quasi-certifiable candidates march across our political stage, and yet our doors are closed to those who refuse to make public statements about their intimate relationship with an ancient savior. For the Bible tells us so. If we believe the preachers. Those of us who don’t will be putting on our Bob Dylan records and reading the wise words of Abraham Lincoln.
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