Linked by a Bible
Barack Obama’s decision to select the same Bible for his inauguration that Abraham Lincoln used at his first inauguration in 1861 forges an intriguing connection between these two presidents. It’s the latest in a series of purposeful associations, from Obama announcing his run for the White House from the steps of the Old State Capitol in Springfield, Ill., (where Lincoln gave his “House Divided” speech), to a photo-op last week at the Lincoln Memorial.
As with all symbols, the use of the Lincoln Bible -- gilt-edged, covered in burgundy-colored velvet -- does much more than physically link two administrations. Lincoln made surprising and controversial use of the Bible and faith as president. Will Obama, whose religious beliefs have already played a role in American politics, do the same?
Lincoln’s reliance on the Bible is surprising in a way not generally known to most Americans today. Lincoln was the only president who never joined a church. Yet Lincoln arguably wrote and spoke more profoundly on faith and religion in American politics than any other president in our history.
The range of his words includes his emotional farewell address at Springfield in 1861, in which he offered a compelling statement on the omnipresence of God; the Gettysburg Address, where on the spot he inserted the phrase “under God” in his written text; and his second inaugural address, where, in only 701 words, Lincoln quoted the Bible four times, named God 14 times and invoked prayer three times.
With the way religion is commonly cited by all of our recent presidents, I was startled to discover that, until Lincoln, only one other president -- John Quincy Adams -- quoted the Bible in his inaugural address. God, the Almighty or the Supreme Deity made an appearance in the first 18 inaugural addresses, but mostly in a “God bless America” sort of way. That was true even in Lincoln’s first inaugural.
By his second inaugural, however, Lincoln’s biblical references -- two from the Old Testament and two from the New Testament -- occur in the central paragraph, not as decoration but as the speech’s integral foundation. In quoting “Let us judge not, that we be not judged,” Lincoln uses Jesus’ words from the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 7:5) as the pivot that turns his address in the direction of reconciliation: “With malice toward none, with charity for all.”
Lincoln’s employment of the Bible was controversial in his day for many of the same reasons the employment of the Bible in public speech can be contentious in ours. After the second inaugural, Lincoln was accused of crossing the line between church and state. The New York World indicted Lincoln for “abandoning all pretense of statesmanship” by taking “refuge in piety.”
So far, Obama’s soaring oratory has been associated more with the Bible-quoting Martin Luther King Jr. than the Bible itself. But Obama has made no secret of his religious leanings. And, like Lincoln, he has been criticized for it -- from his choice of a Chicago church to his invitation to evangelical pastor Rick Warren to deliver the inaugural invocation.
Both Lincoln and Obama are also on record as being sensitive to the misuse of the Bible.
In Illinois, Lincoln was deeply troubled by those who tried to use the Bible to support slavery. In Washington, he grew weary of Union ministers and politicians who came regularly to the White House to tell him that God was on their side. In his second inaugural, he upbraided those who would turn God into a narrow tribal deity who takes sides (“each invokes his aid against the other”) rather than a universal, inscrutable God (“the Almighty has his own purposes”).
Obama, though critical of what he sees as misuses of the Bible by conservatives, also has questioned the failure of liberals to join the conversation about values that, he contends, cannot be separated from religious values. “To say that men and women should not inject their ‘personal morality’ into public-policy debates is a practical absurdity,” he wrote in “The Audacity of Hope.” “Our law is by definition a codification of morality, much of it grounded in the Judeo-Christian tradition.”
Multiple witnesses mention the private Lincoln reading from his well-worn Bible. He memorized whole sections, especially the Psalms. In the summer of 1864, Lincoln invited Joshua Speed, his best friend, to spend an evening at the Soldiers’ Home, the Lincolns’ summer residence. When Speed arrived, he found Lincoln reading the Bible.
Speed remarked: “I am glad to see you profitably engaged.”
“Yes,” said Lincoln, “I am profitably engaged.”
“Well,” Speed continued, “if you have recovered from your skepticism, I am sorry to say that I have not.”
Then, according to Speed’s account, Lincoln rose, placed his hand on Speed’s shoulder and said: “You are wrong, Speed. Take all of this book upon reason that you can and the balance on faith, and you will live and die a happier and better man.”
As for Obama, on the campaign trail he too referenced the Sermon on the Mount. While Lincoln refers to God as the “Living God,” Obama identifies the Bible as the “Living Word.” Transparent in his own wrestling with religious questions, he is, as was Lincoln, appreciative of differing points of view. Both men in various ways reveal a strong internal religious compass. Both, it would seem, “read the same Bible.”
On Tuesday, President-elect Barack Obama will put his hand on the same Bible as his 19th century model. The question now is how Obama’s private and public use of the Bible will help guide the moral outcomes he hopes will grow from the theme of his inauguration, which yet again echoes Father Abraham: “A new birth of freedom.”
Ronald C. White Jr., a Huntington Library fellow and a visiting professor at UCLA, is the author of the just-published “A. Lincoln: A Biography.”
Get Group Therapy
Life is stressful. Our weekly mental wellness newsletter can help.
You may occasionally receive promotional content from the Los Angeles Times.