Glenn Beck’s Christianity and Abraham Lincoln’s Religion


John Willingham is a former election official in Texas. He now writes about history, religion, and politics. He holds an M.A. in American history from the University of Texas at Austin, where his major field was American intellectual history. Mr. Willingham can be reached at http://www.johnwillingham.net/.

Whether or not Glenn Beck’s appearance at the Lincoln Memorial on August 28 was an affront to the memory of Martin Luther King, Jr., whose “I Have a Dream” speech was delivered at the same site on August 28, 1963, or merely an example of just how surreal our politics—and religion—have become, one thing is clear:  the narrow Christianity Beck touted to the large crowd and to the nation bears little resemblance to the deep religious thought of the man whose  legacy the memorial honors.

As Beck has moved closer to becoming a televangelist, the Christianity he proclaims has become a vehicle for what psychologists call “confirmation bias.”  He offers Americans a Christian blessing on what they want to believe, raising self-interest to a place of religious prominence and justifying through his “sermons” the human inclination in times of stress to transform differences into wars of good versus evil.  Beck’s Christianity is human, all too human, with a nimbus of facile rhetoric.

He derides what he identifies as the religious views of the president, saying on the day after his rally that the president’s “belief structure” is “a perversion of the gospel of Jesus Christ as most Christians know it.”  He claims that the president favors “collectivism” in religion, a word that easily communicates a negative political message that carries over into Beck’s “non-political” remarks about religion.

On his program the day before the Restoring Honor rally at the Lincoln Memorial, Beck asked his panel of pastors, “Am I the only one that doesn't believe in collective salvation?  That that is…the antithesis to the Jesus message?”

Pastor Richard Lee of First Redeeming Church in Cumming, Georgia, replied, “This idea of collected [sic] salvation is basically an idea that is taking God's word, which is clear and plain, Glenn, and is twisting it for personal use and personal gain.  That's all it is:  personal gain.” 

David Barton, the “expert” at Beck University on early American history, told Beck’s audience that when the English evangelist George Whitefield began his historic series of sermons in 1740, “what he saw in America was a lot of separate groups.  And that's a problem, because the gospel when it came, raised individuals up.  That's what ticked the British off because we were suddenly all individuals.  We had been subjects and groups before.”

“He [Whitefield] saw that and he brought the individual message.  And that's why the Declaration and the Constitution don't deal with groups, they deal with individuals.”

Agreement with this view would appear to require a creative reading of famous passages in our founding documents, such as “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal….”  And then there is the Constitution’s “We the people of the United States of America, in order to form a more perfect Union….”

Turning to Abraham Lincoln, we know that he was an ambitious lawyer and politician, and that he was during most of his career a deft pragmatist.  In a letter to Horace Greeley on August 22, 1862, he wrote that his “official duty” as president required him to save the Union, whether or not he freed the slaves.  (He went on to write, however, that his longstanding personal wish was that “all men” everywhere could be free, thus signaling his turn toward emancipating the slaves.)

In early Septembers 1862, after months of grieving over the death of his son Willie, and soon after the Union defeat at the Second Battle of Bull Run, Lincoln’s thoughts, while still concerned with restoring the Union, came around to a powerful, almost Calvinistic religious conviction that the war had gone on for so long, and at such cost, because God had willed that it must do so to serve a purpose that transcended states’ rights or the restoration of the Union.

 Lincoln wrote during this period about the relationship of God (though not Jesus) to history in his “Meditation on the Divine Will,” discovered after his death; and the higher purpose he soon settled on as reflecting God’s will was the emancipation of the slaves.

Thus for the pragmatic Lincoln, during most of his first two years in office, restoration of the Union—not the justification of his own place in history—was the preeminent goal, the horror of slavery aside.  For the increasingly religious Lincoln, wracked by personal loss and in despair that the country remained disunited after almost two years of slaughter, what mattered was not Abraham Lincoln the individual, or even his personal relationship with God, but Abraham Lincoln as the instrument of God’s will to have freedom and equality prevail in America, and thereby inspire the world.

God willed the end of slavery; the war must become a crusade to carry out that will.  “In giving freedom to the slave,” Lincoln told Congress in December, 1862, just before issuing the Emancipation Proclamation in January of 1863, “we assure freedom to the free—honorable alike in what we give, and what we preserve.  We shall nobly save, or meanly lose, the last best hope of earth.” [Emphasis in original.]

What he meant by assuring “freedom to the free” was anticipated in his 1854 speech in Peoria, Illinois.  “I hate [slavery],” Lincoln said then, “because it deprives our Republican example of its just influence in the world—enables the enemies of free institutions, with plausibility, to taunt us as hypocrites—causes the real friends of freedom to doubt our sincerity, and especially because it forces so many really good men…into an open war with the very fundamental principles of civil liberty—criticizing the Declaration of Independence, and insisting that there is no right principle of action but self-interest.” [Emphasis added.]

Denying freedom to the slaves—shocking in the nation that had produced the Declaration of Independence—was a cruel and dispiriting message to all people that any of them might be enslaved, that any of them might be denied the opportunity to become the best that they could be.  Ending slavery was “noble” in extending freedom and equality, but also in protecting the “last best hope” of assuring their survival, thus preserving the nation’s greatest legacy to humankind.

Lincoln’s meditation on the will of God in a time of severe personal and national suffering led him out of himself and into a sacred commitment to the egalitarian ideals of the Declaration of Independence, in which he found a reflection of God’s intended path for humanity.  His own last full measure of devotion was to bring the nation, and with it the world, closer to that path.  It is for us to understand that the memorial in his name honors so much more than just one man, great though he was.

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Nat Bates - 9/15/2010

A lot can be said about the very real influence of the Hebrew and New Testament Bibles on the rhetoric of the founders. What must be emphasized, however, is that their religio-political world views were very deeply thought out. I do not see the same level of deeply thought out religion, and deeply felt spiritual/moral values, among the followers of Mr. Beck. Far from the Puritans, the Abolitionists, or King, who wanted to afflict the comfortable and comfor the afflicted, in Mr. Beck's movement I see a group of people who would abandon God in a minute over issues of their real god, money. If a few individuals in that movement are different, then they need to come out of that movement and be separate from it.

John Willingham - 9/13/2010

I take your point, but Beck has for a long time been working with right-wing Christians to promote a "Christianity" that deifies self-interest and characterizes most government action as leading to a corruption of virtue.

In his programs and through his "University," his focus for months has been on developing this message on several levels--theatrics (himself), historical distortion (David Barton), and intellectual argument, with the Beck University lectures on the Constitution, delivered by Professor James Stoner of LSU. Those lectures recently concluded with a strong assertion that progressives are undermining the Constitution and promoting relativism in place of traditional values.

In all this, Mormonism plays only a small role, or no role at all, though some believe that emphasizing Beck's Mormon background discredits his Christian pronouncements. I chose not to make that argument. Beck's contrast with Lincoln is what interested me.

Phillip Ross - 9/13/2010

Since this is a site that is concerned with history, you should reference that fact that Beck is not a Christian by any historic standards. He is a Mormon, and Mormonism stands outside the historic definitions of Christianity by all standards except their own.

More: http://pilgrim-platform.org/2010/kettle-calls-pot-black/