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My Take: An almost chosen nation
In 2009, President Barack Obama was sworn in using the same bible used by former President Abraham Lincoln. The Lincoln bible will make an appearance in this inauguration as well.
January 19th, 2013
10:00 PM ET

My Take: An almost chosen nation

Editor's Note: Joseph Loconte, Ph.D., is an associate professor of history at the King’s College in New York City and the author of The Searchers: A Quest for Faith in the Valley of Doubt.

By Joseph Loconte, Special to CNN

When Barack Obama is publicly sworn in for the second time as president on Monday, he will use two Bibles. One belonged to the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., the other to Abraham Lincoln —two of the most religious figures in American political history. Both men saw clearly the moral contradictions that tore at the fabric of American democratic life. Yet both also believed deeply in the exceptional character of the United States and the spiritual significance of its democratic mission.

In a speech to the New Jersey legislature on his inaugural journey to Washington, February 21, 1861, Lincoln reflected on Trenton’s heroic role in America’s fight for independence:

“I recollect thinking then, boy even though I was, that there must have been something more than common that those men struggled for; that something even more than National Independence; that something that held out a great promise to all the people of the world to all time to come.”

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Lincoln never doubted the universal appeal of the nation’s experiment in self-government, a “promise to all people of the world” that would endure across the centuries. Unlike modern liberals, Lincoln was no cultural relativist: He believed firmly in natural and inalienable rights that belonged to all people, from every corner of the globe, by virtue of their common humanity. Despite the cancer of slavery and racism that had infected the body politic, no nation was more devoted to securing those rights than the United States. Indeed, Lincoln insisted that America had a God-given role in advancing this cause in the world:

“I am exceedingly anxious that this Union, the Constitution, and the liberties of the people shall be perpetuated in accordance with the original idea for which that struggle was made, and I shall be most happy indeed if I shall be an humble instrument in the hands of the Almighty, and of this, his almost chosen people, for perpetuating the object of that great struggle.”

Lincoln’s description of America as an “almost chosen people” captured brilliantly the qualified and uncertain character of the nation’s democracy: deeply and grievously flawed, but nonetheless caught up in the righteous purposes of God. Unlike many of his religious contemporaries, Lincoln stopped short of identifying America as the new Israel; no spiritual covenant between God and the United States could be presumed. Lincoln well knew the capacity of religious zeal to poison our politics. Nevertheless, he insisted that America’s commitment to liberty and equality was consistent with the character and intentions of the Almighty.

Martin Luther King, Jr., a Baptist minister, shared Lincoln’s political theology. In a way that many liberal and secular-minded Americans would now find offensive, King wielded passages and principles from the Bible like an ax to assault the racist assumptions that degraded the lives of millions of African-Americans. Like Lincoln, he appealed to America’s spiritual legacy in order to renew its democratic mission.

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In “Letter from the Birmingham Jail,” King complained that African-Americans had been denied “our constitutional and God-given rights.” He declared that “the goal of America is freedom,” a mandate from heaven itself. Indeed, King saw the hand of God in the political fight to call America back to its founding ideals: “If the inexpressible cruelties of slavery could not stop us, the opposition we now face will surely fail,” he wrote. “We will win our freedom because the sacred heritage of our nation and the eternal will of God are embodied in our echoing demands.”

Modern liberalism scorns the very idea of “the sacred heritage of our nation.” It rejects the view of America as “an almost chosen people,” an exceptional nation devoted to political and religious ideals anchored in a transcendent cause. In this sense, Mr. Obama’s party, the party of liberalism, would not know what to do with a Lincoln or a King.

It is heartening, and symbolically important, that Mr. Obama will be using the Bibles of these two great leaders as he takes the oath of office. It would be more significant, though, if the president found room for their moral vision of the United States in his administration and in his party.

- kramsaycnn

Filed under: Barack Obama • Belief • Politics

soundoff (752 Responses)
  1. tc

    America Chosen? For what? Indian genocide, black slavery, corrupt political parties? Chosen to be the next empire of lazy fat citizens that will be thier own demise because of poor morals and decisions.

    January 21, 2013 at 8:21 pm |
  2. mama k

    Contrary to what the poster below states, the United States of America was not founded on Christianity.

    That's just nonsense. It is precisely because of extremist idiots like TBT that our nation did NOT become a theocracy. If one listens to the words of our very Deistic key founders reflecting on our newly-established government, we hear a call for moderation among the different sects who were feuding with each other at the time.

    Listen to James Madison, POTUS #4, and the chief architect of the U.S. Constitution:

    During almost fifteen centuries has the legal establishment of Christianity been on trial. What has been its fruits? More or less in all places, pride and indolence in the clergy; ignorance and servility in the laity; in both, superstition, bigotry, and persecution.

    (A Remonstrance . . to the Virginia General Assembly in 1785.)

    Listen to John Adams, POTUS #2:

    I almost shudder at the thought of alluding to the most fatal example of the abuses of grief which the history of mankind has preserved – the Cross. Consider what calamities that engine of grief has produced! With the rational respect that is due to it, knavish priests have added prostitutions of it, that fill or might fill the blackest and bloodiest pages of human history. "

    (in a letter to Thomas Jefferson, 09/03/1816)

    The United States of America have exhibited, perhaps, the first example of governments erected on the simple principles of nature; and if men are now sufficiently enlightened to disabuse themselves of artifice, imposture, hypocrisy, and superstition, they will consider this event as an era in their history. It will never be pretended that any persons employed in that service had interviews with the gods, or were in any degree under the influence of Heaven, more than those at work upon ships or houses, or laboring in merchandise or agriculture; it will forever be acknowledged that these governments were contrived merely by the use of reason and the senses.

    Thirteen governments [of the original states] thus founded on the natural authority of the people alone, without a pretence of miracle or mystery, and which are destined to spread over the northern part of that whole quarter of the globe, are a great point gained in favor of the rights of mankind.

    (from A Defence of the Constitutions of Government of the United States of America [1787-1788])

    Listen to Ben Franklin:

    Some books against Deism fell into my hands; they were said to be the substance of the sermons which had been preached at Boyle’s Lectures. It happened that they wrought an effect on me quite contrary to what was intended by them. For the arguments of the Deists, which were quoted to be refuted, appeared to be much stronger than the refutations; in short, I soon became a thorough Deist.

    (from his Autobiography)

    Thomas Paine was very Deistic. He witness Quakers being hung in Massachusetts by other Christians:

    I do not believe in the creed professed by the Jewish church, by the Roman church, by the Greek church, by the Turkish church, by the Protestant church, nor by any church that I know of. My own mind is my own church. All national institutions of churches, whether Jewish, Christian or Turkish, appear to me no other than human inventions, set up to terrify and enslave mankind, and monopolize power and profit.

    Thomas Jefferson had his own Deistic version of the Bible.

    Millions of innocent men, women, and children, since the introduction of Christianity, have been burnt, tortured, fined, imprisoned; yet we have not advanced one inch towards uniformity. What has been the effect of coercion? To make one half the world fools, and the other half hypocrites. To support roguery and error all over the earth.

    (from Notes on the State of Virginia)

    Of course Deism holds to the belief of God as the creator of the universe. But many Deists also believed that God did not interfere with the lives of his creation. And many Deists disbelieved in all of the "magic" in the Bible – some of them refuting the Bible and Christianity completely.

    Jefferson, Washington, Adams, Paine, Mason & Madison all witnessed the violent persecution between Christian sects in their home states around the time the government was being established. So it is of no surprise that they needed a secular government and they knew the only way to enforce freedom of religion was to keep religion out of the government as much as possible.

    Listen to James Madison speak about the need for the need to keep religion out of government (Jefferson wasn't the only one to explicitly speak of the separation of church and state):

    Every new & successful example therefore of a perfect separation between ecclesiastical and civil matters, is of importance. And I have no doubt that every new example, will succeed, as every past one has done, in shewing that religion & Govt. will both exist in greater purity, the less they are mixed together.

    The Civil Govt, tho' bereft of everything like an associated hierarchy, possesses the requisite stability and performs its functions with complete success, Whilst the number, the industry, and the morality of the Priesthood, & the devotion of the people have been manifestly increased by the total separation of the Church from the State.

    (from letters to Edward Livingston and Robert Walsh)

    Madison as president vetoed two bills that he believed would violate the separation of church and state. He also came to oppose the long-established practice of employing chaplains at public expense in the House of Representatives and Senate on the grounds that it violated the separation of church and state and the principles of religious freedom. (Library of Congress – James Madison Papers – Detached memorandum, ca. 1823.)

    President John Adams and the U.S. Senate on behalf of the U.S.

    As the Government of the United States of America is not, in any sense, founded on the Christian religion;

    (from Article 11 of the U.S. treaty ratified with Tripoli in 1797)

    January 21, 2013 at 4:35 pm |
    • mama k

      Also, please read my post further down at : January 20, 2013 at 6:49 pm, where there is a very interesting article by James Madison where he argues both sides of the ti Who are the Best Keepers of the People's Liberties?.

      January 21, 2013 at 4:39 pm |
    • mama k

      ( both sides of the title )

      January 21, 2013 at 4:41 pm |
  3. Science

    Scientist seeks 'adventurous woman' to have Neanderthal baby
    Where’s Fred Flintstone when you need him?

    A professor of genetics at Harvard’s Medical School believes he’s capable of bringing the long-extinct Neanderthal back to life – all he’s lacking is the right mother.

    Read more: http://www.foxnews.com/science/2013/01/21/scientist-seeks-adventurous-woman-to-have-neanderthal-baby/?intcmp=features#ixzz2IdrhQbpJ

    January 21, 2013 at 4:16 pm |
  4. truth be told

    America is a chosen nation created by Christians for Christians. The sooner America gets back to the Holy Bible standard the better off we will be.

    January 21, 2013 at 2:32 pm |
    • Richard Cranium

      tuth be trolled
      Why do you keep posting ridiculous lies, what exactly are you getting out of it.

      DO NOT FEED THE TROLL

      January 21, 2013 at 2:35 pm |
    • truth be told

      Truth is never trolling.

      January 21, 2013 at 4:03 pm |
  5. W Gary Johnson

    Abraham Lincoln was an atheist. He didn't even own a bible when he was inaugurated. Someone had to rush out and buy it for him. How can you possibly describe him as a "religious" figure? Apart from his crafty use of biblical language in his speeches, there is no evidence he had any use for religion.

    January 21, 2013 at 12:33 pm |
    • Bill Deacon

      Having no use for religion is not evidence of atheism

      January 21, 2013 at 12:49 pm |
  6. Reality

    The Jefferson bible would have been a better choice as TJ removed all of the supernatural mumbo jumbo from his bible to include the insane Book of Revelation.

    Other "better" choices, Hammurabi's Code, the Egyptian Book of the Dead, and/or the New Torah for Modern Minds, http://query.nytimes.com/gst/abstract.html?res=F20E1EFE35540C7A8CDDAA0894DA404482

    January 21, 2013 at 7:51 am |
    • tc

      Yeah – that Jefferson he was a know it all and even thought he should have his own bible. Hmm arrogance and cultish – yes

      January 21, 2013 at 8:23 pm |
  7. Bring it here

    To CNN
    Please post front page article below on belief blog for comments Thank you.

    Presidents should not swear in on a Bible

    http://www.cnn.com/2013/01/17/opinion/obeidallah-bible/index.html?hpt=hp_c2

    January 21, 2013 at 6:15 am |
  8. kevobx

    Psalm 50:7 Hear, O my people, and I will speak; O Israel, and I will testify against thee: I am God, even thy God.

    January 20, 2013 at 11:42 pm |
  9. Esmerelda de Ville

    Did you know that Joe Biden can fit an entire potato into his mouth?

    January 20, 2013 at 8:23 pm |
    • TheistStefan

      Let's talk about ducks.

      January 20, 2013 at 8:53 pm |
  10. John P. Tarver

    Once Obamacre is overturned, only people with mastercard and visa will have healthcare.

    January 20, 2013 at 7:40 pm |
    • Rational Libertarian

      The sooner it's gone, the better.

      January 20, 2013 at 8:14 pm |
    • J P TarverWatch

      Ah, the troll who ran earlier when asked to supply sources. The troll is infamous on these blogs for lying.

      January 20, 2013 at 8:15 pm |
  11. John P. Tarver

    Obamacre as a tax will be overturned as soon as it is paid.

    January 20, 2013 at 7:39 pm |
  12. mama k

    The article's author has some good observations regarding Lincoln and King, but I feel his key assumption only reflects part of our heritage. He gets to his point in the next to last paragraph.

    I would disagree that "Modern liberalism scorns the very idea of 'the sacred heritage of our nation.'" There always has been a struggle between those who claim their inalienable rights from a particular God and "transcendent cause", and others who had an often very different God in mind (or none). With each type of God (or none), each has its own idea of purpose. Since this struggle goes back to the founding of the government, I would say that struggle better defines our heritage than this one-sided view.

    James Madison, 4th POTUS, was of course, the chief architect of the U.S. Constitution & Bill of Rights. He and Jefferson, of course, were fierce advocates for the separation of church and state, and he was the key framer of the 1st Amendment.

    Madison wrote an article for the National Gazette – December 20, 1792. (So this was about a year after an initial ten of the twelve Amendments to the Constitution [that were primarily drawn from the Bill of Rights] were ratified.) In the article, he attempts to play both "Republican" and "Anti-republican". I think the "Republican" side hints at the influence of Deism that was popular then. I think as an Episcopal who grew up and witnessed religious persecution in his home state between Christian sects, Madison was easily able to see the necessity for the separation of church and state, and I think he understood well both sides of the argument for and against:

    =======================

    Who are the Best Keepers of the People's Liberties?

    Republican-[answer to the title] The people themselves. The sacred trust can be no where so safe as in the hands most interested in preserving it.

    Anti-republican–The people are stupid, suspicious, licentious. They cannot safely trust themselves. When they have established government they should think of nothing but obedience, leaving the care of their liberties to their wiser rulers.

    Republican–Although all men are born free, and all nations might be so, yet too true it is, that slavery has been the general lot of the human race. Ignorant–they have been cheated; asleep–they have been surprised; divided–the yoke has been forced upon them. But what is the lesson? That because the people may betray themselves, they ought to give themselves up, blindfold, to those who have an interest in betraying them? Rather conclude that the people ought to be enlightened, to be awakened, to be united, that after establishing a government they should watch over it, as well as obey it.

    Anti-republican–You look at the surface only, where errors float, instead of fathoming the depths where truth lies hid. It is not the government that is disposed to fly off from the people; but the people that are ever ready to fly off from the government. Rather say then, enlighten the government, warn it to be vigilant, enrich it with influence, arm it with force, and to the people never pronounce but two words–Submission and Confidence.

    Republican–The centrifugal tendency then is in the people, not in the government, and the secret art lies in restraining the tendency, by augmenting the attractive principle of the government with all the weight that can be added to it. What a perversion of the natural order of things! To make power the primary and central object of the social system, and Liberty but its satellite.

    Anti-republican-The science of the stars can never instruct you in the mysteries of government. Wonderful as it may seem, the more you increase the attractive force of power, the more you enlarge the sphere of liberty; the more you make government independent and hostile towards the people, the better security you provide for their rights and interests. Hence the wisdom of the theory, which, after limiting the share of the people to a third of the government ... establishes two grand hereditary orders ... inveterately hostile to the rights and interests of the people, yet by a mysterious operation all combining to fortify the people in both.

    Republican–Mysterious indeed! But mysteries belong to religion, not to government; to the ways of the Almighty, not to the works of man. And in religion itself there is nothing mysterious to its author; the mystery lies in the dimness of the human sight. So in the institutions of man let there be no mystery, unless for those inferior beings endowed with a ray perhaps of the twilight vouchsafed to the first order of terrestrial creation.

    Anti-republican–You are destitute, I perceive, of every quality of a good citizen, or rather of a good subject. You have neither the light of faith nor the spirit of obedience. I denounce you to the government as an accomplice of atheism and anarchy.

    Republican–And I forbear to denounce you to the people, though a blasphemer of their rights and an idolater of tyranny. Liberty disdains to persecute.

    =======================

    January 20, 2013 at 6:49 pm |
    • ISLAM FOUNDATION OF AMERICAN CONSTI TUTION

      Human hinduism ignorance borne out of hinduism, corruption of truth absolute called religionS, hinduism corruption of truth rejected by founding fathers, after realization of purpose of religions, TO MAKE HUMAN HINDU GENTILES, IGNORANT SLAVES OF OTHER MAGI, CROOKED HUMAN.

      January 20, 2013 at 8:15 pm |
  13. Wingnut2

    Lets run some Vegas odds here! With tomorrow being the inauguration of Obama and MLK day, how many cities will be burned to the ground? Detroit and Camden for sure. Any others? Body count??? You want some skin in this game?

    January 20, 2013 at 6:00 pm |
  14. Esmerelda de Ville

    I heard that Joe Biden can fit an entire Idaho potato in his mouth.

    January 20, 2013 at 5:50 pm |
  15. ISLAM FOUNDATION OF AMERICAN CONSTI TUTION

    WHERE AND HOW DID FOUNDING FATHERS FOUND TRUTH ABSOLUTE HUMAN EQUALITY?
    It was not reviled to them,but alot of research and consultations. They consulted people of hinduism, corruption of truth religions and they were unable to find truth among them, they were guided to book of peace, Islam by truth absolute and found and understood truth of Holy quran, with clear truth of human creation, They recognized misgivings of Muslims of the time, and gave nation of America, WHAT WAS COMMANDED IN HOLY QURAN AND HEDAT.
    AS IT IS COMMANDED IN HOLY QURAN TO HUMAN,
    AND 'HE' ONE WHO HAS MADE YOU 'HIS' ALLAH, TRUTH ABSOLUTE HIS ASSISTANT ON EARTH, GENERATION AFTER GENERATION AND HE HAS RAISED YOU IN RANKS, SOME ABOVE OTHeRS THAT 'HE' MAY TRY YOU IN THAT WHICH "he" HAS BESTOWED ON YOU. SURELY, YOUR LORD IS SWIFT IN RETRIBUTION , AND CERTAINLY "he" IS OFT- FORGIVING, MOST MERCIFUL.
    Founding fathers recognized TRUTH of Islam, and decided to part away from hinduism, corruption of truth to recognize human equality under the La, limit of truth absolute 360*.
    No other book of religion has commanded human equality so clearly, as it is recorded in holy quran.
    WHAT ARE RELIGIONS.

    Behind WALL of religion is nothing more than TRUTH ABSOLUTE, DISPLAYED IN FORM OF HOLY QIBLAH IN MECCA, SAUDI ARABIA AND HINDRANCE TO TRUTH ABSOLUTE, OF HINDUISM DISPLAYED IN FORM OF PYRAMIDS OF EGYPT. Designed by self proclaimed man gods Plato, Pythagoras etc, of Hinduism, denial of truth absolute in physical form.
    Design of holy Qiblah mathematically conforms to the essence, truth of universe, THE BALANCE, and design of pyramid negates essence of universe. THE BALANCE. Balance being reflection of truth absolute ALLAH.
    Formation of religions are same as a person in a house of mirrors, one body is seen in different forms in human distorted illusions, but not true form of a form, reflected of, form reflected in distorted forms in mirrors. Illusions RELIGIONS reflected off of are of TRUTH ABSOLUTE. Discussed by self proclaimed fathers of Hinduism, denial of truth absolute, self proclaimed Philosophers, but hindu sanatans, ignorant shamans in reality Plato etc, as FORM OF FORMS AND IDEA OF IDEAS. THEY WERE UNABLE TO RECOGNIZE FORM OF TRUTH, WHAT THEY WERE IN OBSERVANCE OF AND SOURCE OF IDEAS. THEY REALIZED REFLECTION AS TRUTH, WITHOUT REALIZING SOURCE OF REFLECTION, TRUTH ABSOLUTE ALLAH, AND ESSENCE OF EXISTENCE OF REFLECTION. THEY WERE IN OBSERVANCE OF IN REALITY. Cause of different religions and subsequent sects.
    pLEASE VISIT Limitisthetruth.com to compare human equality ordained by truth absolute Allah, and hinduism criminality
    of hindu's racist to make humanity their gentile, slave.

    January 20, 2013 at 5:22 pm |
  16. lionlylamb

    The "goal of freedom" is exactly just what? Free to be a thinker of thoughts outside the hindrances the indoctrinated souls who dare convolutions of socialized degradations? Where then should freedom lovers be so found acclimated upon? Are uncivil morbidities of detrimental moralities fast becoming a doctrinal normality?

    The judicial trump card has given the American tramps and harlots their rights to kill children at will without physical ailment being the culprit for abortive reasoning. Are American abortion rationales ever to seek the uncivil moralist bucket's bottom dwellers?

    January 20, 2013 at 4:05 pm |
  17. Emily

    Actually, religion is a pretty integral part of the modern African-American left, the LGBT equality movement, liberal anti-poverty movements, and quite a few other things. The author of this piece is quite obviously not particularly well-educated on the subject, and shows no evidence whatsoever to support his claim that any significant number of liberal or secular Americans had a problem with any religious statement Dr. King made.

    Bearing false witness is a sin in the Yahwehistic faiths and most others. Maybe this guy should learn to follow whatever faith he actually has and stop looking for motes in other peoples' eyes.

    January 20, 2013 at 4:02 pm |
    • Rational Libertarian

      From my experience, black people tend to be anti-LGBT equality.

      January 20, 2013 at 6:07 pm |
    • What?

      Your absolutely right rational liberterian...Ru Paul is a figment of your imagination

      January 20, 2013 at 7:54 pm |
    • Rational Libertarian

      So one black tranny creates universal acceptance, does it?

      January 20, 2013 at 8:13 pm |
  18. doug

    Well done Mr. Loconte. You understand the soul of those two great men – and the souls of the great men and women who proceeded them in the construction of this grand ideal; that all men are created equal and are endowed by thier Creator with certain unalienable Rights. Our nation is special and indeed is an "almost chosen nation".

    January 20, 2013 at 3:47 pm |
  19. CommonSense

    More illogical religious nonsense. I thought the article was childish, and then I read several of the "Angry White People" trashy comments. Hahaha! I love the nonsense about "god given rights". "Rights" have never happened that way, but I supposed people just keep saying it because it makes them feel special.
    If you would like to understand how rights are granted in a society see "redress of grievances" .

    Come on, GROW UP America. You can do it!!! It's fun being an adult.

    January 20, 2013 at 3:20 pm |
    • Montgomery Burns

      I like the cut of your jib.

      January 20, 2013 at 3:33 pm |
  20. John P. Tarver

    The Democratic Party placed the Confederate Battle flag atop the South Carolina State House and Republicans took it down.

    January 20, 2013 at 3:03 pm |
    • Four More Years

      Obama inaugurated, and the Senate is Democrat.

      Having a bad day, aren't you.

      January 20, 2013 at 3:11 pm |
    • John P. Tarver

      Total gridlock works for me, happy as can be.

      January 20, 2013 at 3:15 pm |
    • Terri

      And Obama care will forever be a part of America.

      January 20, 2013 at 3:16 pm |
    • Akira

      The House gridlocks more than ever.
      Don't blame Obama for their shenanigans.

      January 20, 2013 at 3:35 pm |
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The CNN Belief Blog covers the faith angles of the day's biggest stories, from breaking news to politics to entertainment, fostering a global conversation about the role of religion and belief in readers' lives. It's edited by CNN's Daniel Burke with contributions from Eric Marrapodi and CNN's worldwide news gathering team.