SZASZ: Lincoln and Religion (2014)

Lincoln and Religion by Ferenc Morton Szasz with Margaret Connell Szasz.  Southern Illinois University Press, 2014.  Cloth, ISBN:  978-0809333219. $24.95.
A perennial question about Abraham Lincoln is the nature of his religious faith: was he or wasn’t he a Christian?  Just why this question lingers says as much about Americans’ abiding fascination with the relevance of religion in their politics as it does about the enigmatic blend of reason and revelation in Lincoln’s rhetoric.  The puzzle of Lincoln’s faith derives from conflict evidence from different periods of his life, whether one considers opposing witnesses on the subject, his few public statements touching his own piety, or the many references to the Bible in his writings.  With his own wife admitting that while Lincoln was “not a technical Christian,” he was “a religious man always,” could even angels provide a definitive account of what Lincoln believed about God?

Ferenc Morton Szasz tries as much in the Concise Lincoln Library series—short works meant to introduce the general reader to important issues in Lincoln’s life and politics.  Informed by the latest scholarship, these slender volumes also reflect their respective authors’ own insights and concerns, resulting in a fresh look at old debates about Lincoln’s legacy. Alas, for such a daunting topic as Lincoln’s faith, Szasz’s book contains significant errors and omissions, and is too idiosyncratic to recommend as a reliable introduction.  While he canvasses many of the familiar episodes that bear on Lincoln and religion, and wisely balks at stating definitively that Lincoln was or was not a Christian (“any answer to the question retains a baffling complexity”), Szasz’s interpretation ultimately reads too much like a personal reflection on the subject of Lincoln and religion, rather than a primer on the subject (67).

I should note that the Introduction mentions the “most trying of physical circumstances” under which Szasz labored to write this, his last book—namely, the leukemia that eventually claimed his life.  Published posthumously, the book contains some rough patches that would have been smoothed over had Szasz been able to complete the project.  That said, for the purposes of this review, I kept my focus on the aims of both the series and volume in my assessment of the book’s merits and faults.

Szasz’s account certainly has its virtues.  From the outset, he characterizes Lincoln’s religion as an “evolving faith perspective” (1), which squares with both the written record and reminiscence material.  He notes Lincoln’s religious skepticism up front (4), citing Volney and Thomas Paine (18-19) as significant influences on Lincoln’s assessment of Christianity.  But Szasz is careful not to dismiss the Bible as an early and persistent shaper of Lincoln’s thinking, making the Bible and the Enlightenment the twin lodestars of Lincoln’s intellectual firmament (10).  He identifies these as overlapping “ideological systems.” Although he does not say so directly, this reminds us that almost all of Lincoln’s references to religion, God, or the Bible arose in a political context.

He also gives a fair and wise summation of Lincoln as an unorthodox believer but fulsome practitioner of Christianity, who preached what he had long practiced (68).  While one could contest Szasz calling Lincoln a deist (20), he includes a long quote from Lincoln’s 1861 farewell speech (27), which testifies to Lincoln’s growth in Christian faith when he asks for Springfield’s prayers as he departs for the White House.  Ditto for Lincoln’s “Meditation on the Divine Will,” which Szasz quotes in its entirety—fitting, given its absence in an appendix listing quotations by Lincoln about God.

Nevertheless, the negatives outweigh the positives.  Szasz’s account would have benefitted from greater elaboration to clarify debatable assertions, sketchy conclusions, and muddled overstatements.  For example, he charges Lincoln’s nemesis Stephen A. Douglas with “struggling to rescue the viability of popular sovereignty without engaging a moral position” during the 1858 debates (9), when the actual political problem for Douglas was trying to square local popular sovereignty with his repeated defense of the notorious 1857 Dred Scott ruling, which said that Congress—and by implication territorial legislatures—could not ban slavery.

He also makes questionable or puzzling statements: for example, Szasz observes that the Bible speaks of human equality (15) without adding that it was also interpreted by white southerners to justify black slavery; refers to Lincoln’s devotion to Union as “religious mysticism” (63) without attributing that phrase to Confederate Vice President Alexander Stephens; comments that the Episcopal church saw the church, “not the nation-state,” as the means to salvation (25), without explaining why he thought this was distinctive to that denomination and not to “the prevailing evangelical ethos”; cites New York Tribune editor Horace Greeley as testifying to Lincoln’s lack of faith when he left for the White House (28) without explaining why Greeley (who had known Lincoln as a fellow congressman in the last three months of their term) should be trusted over anyone else on this subject; and asserts that Lincoln’s 1862 address to Congress “spoke to nuanced changes in Lincoln’s religion” (48) without citing or explaining any of these changes.

In addition, several significant mistakes could readily have been corrected: to wit, “Spotty” Lincoln did not support the Mexican War (23); ministers travelling to the White House to argue for emancipation hailed from Chicago, not Connecticut (30); and President Obama is misquoted to say “truncated element of the American character” when “fundamental element” was the actual phrase (60). Also, Szasz initially says Lincoln “planned to issue a statement” addressing rumors of infidelity (or lack of faith) during his 1846 campaign (4), then later says (correctly) that he did issue a statement (23).

For an introduction to Lincoln and religion, there are also too many important omissions: Lincoln famously referred to the American people as “his [i.e., God’s] almost chosen people” (39-41, 50-51), but Szasz never cites this phrase, even when arguing for Lincoln’s belief in a covenant theory of God and America.  When quoting Lincoln’s most religious speech, the Second Inaugural Address, Szasz omits the sentence about the cosmic injustice of slavery being punished by the ravages of civil war “until all the wealth piled by the bond-man’s two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash, shall be paid by another drawn with the sword” (52-53). And discussion of Lincoln’s faith could have been enhanced by considering his well-known fondness for Shakespeare, which in part was due to the Bard’s employment of biblical theology, e.g., Lincoln lauded King Claudius’ soliloquy in Hamlet (“O, my offence is rank”) over the more famous one by Hamlet (“To be, or not to be”).

The series editor notes that had Szasz “been granted more time, he undoubtedly would have added to his manuscript” (xii).  While he would have caught the obvious errors noted above, an introduction to Lincoln and religion should still offer a more objective presentation and less personal imprint.

Lucas E. Morel is the Class of 1960 Professor of Ethics and Politics at Washington and Lee University and author of Lincoln’s Sacred Effort: Defining Religion’s Role in American Self-Government (2000) and Lincoln and Liberty: Wisdom for the Ages (2014).

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