Christianity, History

Happy Presidents’ Day!

Or, technically, Happy Washington’s Birthday, since as Thomas S. Kidd points out (more from him in a few lines), “Presidents’ Day” is a marketing invention, not a Federal holiday.

I’ll admit to being an infrequent celebrant of this particular holiday, mostly because it’s been nearly twenty years since I was part of an educational institution that gave me the day off. But having already branched into presidential history not long ago with a post on presidential memorials in Washington, DC, I thought I’d mark the occasion by sharing a couple of links for those readers more interested in this area of history than I…

First, the American Historical Association blog (AHA Today) posted a collection of links: presidential debates, libraries, photos, recordings and transcripts of speeches, and more.

Second, the Washington Post has several presidential items: a discussion board dedicated to asking who was the most underrated president, a Presidents’ Day quiz (8/10 for me), and photo galleries of “iconic leadership moments in presidential history” and the top sixteen presidential movies. (I’m not sure how they’re ordered, but if they start with the #1 pick, I’m totally in agreement: my favorite presidential movie keeps the president in question almost totally off-screen.)

Then most intriguing, historian Thomas Kidd’s post on the faith of George Washington and Abraham Lincoln. Accustomed to inquiring into the relationship between faith and politics for major figures in American political history, Kidd gently chides fellow evangelicals who are “quick to assert that these were also men of strong Christian faith,” reminding us that “the personal faiths of Lincoln and Washington were actually quite enigmatic.”

But past his summary of the “reasons to wonder” about Washington (whom he calls a “serious but moderate Christian”) and some “graver doubts about Lincoln’s faith,” Kidd’s post is most valuable for its closing section, in which he asks whether we ought to spend much time speculating about presidents’ personal religious beliefs:

This is an important topic, but there’s a sense in which, for historical purposes, it doesn’t really matter if these presidents were serious Christians. When you broaden the scope of the question, it is easy to demonstrate that religion was very important to both of them. Both endorsed a public role for religion in America, and Lincoln particularly employed religious rhetoric, and the words of the Bible itself, to the greatest effect of any political leader in American history. For Lincoln and Washington, a secularized public square was inconceivable.

After supporting this claim with quotations from Washington’s Farewell Address and Lincoln’s 2nd Inaugural (among other evidence), Kidd concludes:

So yes, I would love to know exactly what Washington and Lincoln believed personally about Jesus. But there’s no question that, in a public sense, faith mattered to them a great deal, and featured centrally in their concept of a thriving American nation. Their reverence for faith’s vital role in the republic helps account for Washington and Lincoln’s greatness.

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