Today is Presidents Day in the United States, a national holiday. Actually, that’s not quite right. Officially, the federal holiday is still called Washington’s Birthday, and that’s the official name here in New York, too. (Who knew?) But, unofficially, America uses this day to commemorate all its presidents–including, especially, two born in February, George Washington (February 22) and Abraham Lincoln (February 12).
I wasn’t surprised, therefore, when I saw in my twitter feed this afternoon Pew ‘s list of American presidents and their religious identities. About one-quarter have been Episcopalians; several have been Presbyterians; only one, John Kennedy, has been a Catholic. Pew lists three as having no religious identity: Thomas Jefferson, Andrew Johnson, and Abraham Lincoln.
Lincoln, in particular, is an interesting case. People have been fighting over his religious identity since just after he died. He never formally joined a church. But some people who knew him said that, although he had been skeptical about organized religion in his youth, and may in fact have written an atheist pamphlet at one point, he became receptive to Christianity during his time in the White House, especially after the death of his son. One report says he was about to join the Presbyterian Church right before he was assassinated. Others who knew him, however, said they noticed no such transformation.
In his definitive 2003 study, Lincoln: A Life of Purpose and Power, historian Richard Carwardine surveys the evidence and, in the end, says that Mary Todd Lincoln probably had the best assessment. Her husband, she explained, was never “a technical Christian.” In particular, he seems not to have accepted the divinity of Christ. On the other hand, almost everyone who knew him agreed that he was “naturally religious.” Those lines in the Second Inaugural Address were not just for show. Lincoln believed that the universe was governed by an omnipotent God who worked things out for His own righteous, often inscrutable purposes. And Lincoln thought the better part of wisdom was to submit to God’s plan.
So, was the Great Emancipator a None? I leave it to you, gentle reader.