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Spirituality as a Bridge: The Examples of George Washington and Abraham Lincoln

An excerpt from The Grace and Power of Civility by David M. Abshire

Whenever religion in America angrily divides us, that division violates the spirit of the world’s great religions, as well as the convictions of our nation’s founders.  It is also against the teachings of our more thoughtful religious leaders.  Inclusiveness, especially in a religious context, is not new.  For instance, early in the Christian tradition, even the Apostle Paul struggled to contain the deep division in the early Jesus movement between the Jewish Christians, who demanded circumcision for all the followers, and the Gentiles, who vehemently opposed this and other Levitical requirements.  Yet in his epistles to the Romans and the Ephesians, time and again Paul told each movement to support its individual belief on such matters.  Do not compromise the details of your belief but “welcome all.”  “May the God of steadfastness and encouragement grant you to live in harmony with one another. . .  Welcome one another, just as Christ has welcomed you.”  This teaching is filled with the search for civility and inclusiveness.

At a meeting for fellow evangelists, the Rev. Robert Schuller recently lamented, “What upsets me about religious leaders of all faiths is that they talk like they know it all, and anybody who doesn’t agree with them is a heretic.”  To take Schuller’s words a step further, too often religious leaders believe—a bit arrogantly—that they have at last solved the mystery of God.  Likewise, we are approaching an era of partisanship that echoes this mind-set of absolutism that can close off dialogue and mutual respect, if we are not able to reclaim our civility.

In dealing with religious difference, we must remind ourselves of the tradition set by our first President, George Washington.  An Anglican, Washington conversed alike with the Jews at the synagogue at Newport, the Quakers in Pennsylvania, and the Catholics in Maryland.  He epitomized the American genius of unity in diversity.  This is a political unity that coalesces around common political philosophy—our religious traditions, rising from the Judeo-Christian and later incorporating other traditions, that acknowledges these “self-evident truths” to allow unity in diversity.  Washington and other early American leaders were influenced by the leading preachers of their time and also by the Enlightenment and the Age of Reason.  It is important to recall that John Witherspoon of Princeton and Samuel Cooper of Harvard emphasized “the consonance of faith and reason” that they held together as friends from different religious traditions.

Abraham Lincoln, our most articulate and spiritual President, knew much of the Bible by heart.  He was even called the “redeemer president.”  Not only was he possessed of extraordinary humor, but he also had an uncanny ability to penetrate to the core of the human condition and its hypocrisies.  When Lincoln was asked why he had not formally joined any church, he replied:

When any church will inscribe over its altar as its sole qualification for membership, the Saviour’s condensed statement of both Law and Gospel—“Thou shall love the Lord thy God with all thy heart and with all thy soul and with all thy mind, and thy neighbor as thyself,”—that church I will join with all my heart and soul.