Presidents: Bible-Cutters, Mystics, Masons

The mainly faith-affiliated abolition movement rallied to Lincoln intensively in the 1864 election, which many initially believed Lincoln would lose to Democratic candidate George McClellan, who opposed the Emancipation Proclamation. Lincoln's reelection was based on nearly unanimous religious support. As Lincoln biographer David Donald has written, "The support the President received [in 1864] from religious groups was overwhelming. There probably never was an election in all our history into which the religion element entered so largely, and nearly all on one side."

When Lincoln was assassinated on Good Friday, many ministers preached sermons comparing him to Jesus, and many newspaper editorials said the same. Surely, he was the only American president ever spoken of in such terms.

Bible Cutting and Pasting

And since the topic is Presidents' Day, why not throw in Jefferson? He also was a deist, his famous declaration, "We hold these truths to be self-evident," meaning that the principles of freedom could be proclaimed from nature, not from either human or divine law. And though Jefferson revered Jesus, saying Christ's teachings were "the sublimest system of morality that has ever been taught," he rejected the miracle accounts of the gospels.

Jefferson wrote a short book, The Life and Morals of Jesus of Nazareth, that anticipated modern revisionism by presenting Christ as a beautiful mortal sage about whom supernatural talk was invented mythology. The normally daring Virginian declined to publish this work during his lifetime, showing it to friends but leaving instructions that the volume not be printed until after his death.

Suffice it to say, an American president today might not venture to write a book rejecting the divinity of Jesus.

In fact, Jefferson did most of his work on The Life and Morals of Jesus of Nazareth (which remains in press under the title The Jefferson Bible) while sitting in the old White House. Late into the night, he sat pouring over the gospels with a razor and glue pot, physically splicing out miracle references and pasting together a non-supernatural account of Christ.

If, today, a president sat up late at night cutting passages out of the Bible, the right would go ballistic, claiming sacrilege, while the left would be disgusted that a president would take religion so seriously as to be tormented by a thirst to find a version of faith he could believe.

Compared with Washington, Jefferson, and Lincoln, Bush's religious beliefs seem quite conventional.

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