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. John P. Tarver

    A devided Government with no mandate drifting sideways, under the leadership of the son of an African slaver; a proud moment for the KKK and their Demoratic Party.

    January 20, 2013 at 1:36 pm |
    • Lemaitre

      Hey Tarver – a lot of people here think we are the same person.

      January 20, 2013 at 1:39 pm |
  2. paul46

    Interesting, if somewhat short-sighted essay. It is possible however (Democratic Party notwithstanding) that Obama's vision may actually be broader than Lincoln's or King's. It is possible that Obama, given his diverse background, may tend more towards seeing "Human Exceptionalism" rather than American Exceptionalism as an ideal. We now live in a global community–like it or not. I see Obama as a good bridge between solid American ideals & possible global harmony. Clearly his desire to negotiate is a step above carpet-bombing.

    January 20, 2013 at 1:34 pm |
  3. John P. Tarver

    The American People voted for total gridlock and Obama is on the road to delivering it.

    January 20, 2013 at 1:30 pm |
    • Tom, Tom, the Piper's Son

      You really are a sad little boy.

      January 20, 2013 at 1:33 pm |
    • Thomas Frilka

      Same schtick. Tarver is definitely trolling as Lemaitre today as well.

      January 20, 2013 at 1:34 pm |
    • .

      They are also trolling as Wow too.

      January 20, 2013 at 1:35 pm |
    • LinCA

      @John P. Tarver

      You said, "The American People voted for total gridlock and Obama is on the road to delivering it."
      Actually, since the obstruction is coming from only one side of the aisle, a majority of people voted to get rid of the anti-American forces in Congress. It was only through gerrymandering that the republicans managed to hold on to a house majority.

      If there was true equal representation, they would no longer have been in a position to drag the US down the drain.

      January 20, 2013 at 1:36 pm |
  4. Lemaitre


    January 20, 2013 at 1:29 pm |
  5. Lemaitre

    What was the girl's name whom Bill slapped around and gave a black eye to? I forget.

    ANYONE? Free Obama Phone for the first correct answer.

    January 20, 2013 at 1:25 pm |
    • Akira

      You do realize that the Obamaphone thing is a complete fabrication, don't you?
      You do realize that it's a federal program that was started decades ago and it was originally for landlines for the poor, right? And that it went to cell phones because of the prevalence of cells, right? And that the switch came in 2008 on Bush's watch, right? RIGHT?

      January 20, 2013 at 1:31 pm |
    • Unintelligent Designer

      Akira, LeMaitre and JP Tarver are trolling, in case you haven't noticed.

      January 20, 2013 at 1:33 pm |
    • Thomas Frilka

      Inc ase you haven't noticed, this Lemaitre Torll isn't terribly interested in facts. He hasn't given one yet.

      January 20, 2013 at 1:33 pm |
    • Lemaitre

      That's all very interesting, but I'm trying to get the name of Bill's hose bag whom he roughed up – Kennedy style

      January 20, 2013 at 1:33 pm |
    • Akira

      Okay, thanks for the heads up; I'll ignore them.

      January 20, 2013 at 1:36 pm |
    • Akira

      What was the name of the woman Bush r.aped?
      Cuts both ways.

      January 20, 2013 at 1:40 pm |
    • Lemaitre

      I never heard that Bush did that. Seriously. Is that a credible accusation?

      January 20, 2013 at 1:43 pm |
  6. kaeldraknowsall

    The author says "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. ".

    Really? Going out of your way in a "Belief" article for an entirely misplaced and inaccurate partisan jab? "Modern liberals" entirely believe in human unalienable rights – that is why they are liberals.

    Casually offering misdirected insults out of the side of your mouth while pretending to honor a past President. Shame on you whoever you are or were, dear author.

    January 20, 2013 at 1:24 pm |
    • Thomas Frilka

      The whole article is just right-wing dingbat drivel. He's hitting all the usual lies. Righty whiteys love to slander and lie.

      January 20, 2013 at 1:31 pm |
  7. Lemaitre

    Well, I guess who Bill and Hillary are dating is the best kept secret in town. You CNN readers sure know how to keep your mouth shut. Good for you. You will be rewarded with your own seat on the Politburo.

    As Bill used to say to Monica, "Open wide and spit to the side!"

    January 20, 2013 at 1:23 pm |
    • Yeah

      So Rush Limbaugh is doing "Classics" reruns of ancient shows this week while he is down in the Dominican Republic visiting his favorite child brothels, is he? That would explain your lame obsession whith a president that left the White House 12 years ago.

      January 20, 2013 at 1:29 pm |
    • Lemaitre

      Rush is on vacation? I wouldn't know. Haven't listened to him for a while. But I'm glad to see you're a loyal ditto head

      January 20, 2013 at 1:32 pm |
    • John P. Tarver

      Once Hillary brought home Webb Hubble's bun in her over it was no longer her business who Billy dates.

      January 20, 2013 at 1:38 pm |
  8. Lemaitre

    The great thing about Fox and Rush Limbaugh is that I can turn them on every day and find out what my opinions are. I wouldn't have the slightest idea what to think if they didn't tell me.

    I listen to propaganda radio day and night. I leave it on when I sleep. I get angry at the things they tell me to be angry about. I repeat what they say and think I am being original.

    January 20, 2013 at 1:22 pm |
  9. whirled peas

    people love to take the comments of past leaders and whirl them around until they suit their own convictions.

    January 20, 2013 at 1:14 pm |
    • Larry of Nazareth

      Oh no, MLK was always a right-wing fanatic. He and Limbaugh would have been great friends.

      When republicans used to call King a communist, they meant it in a nice way.

      January 20, 2013 at 1:16 pm |
  10. Lemaitre

    Hillary. Hillary! My question is about the former First Lady of the land.

    Into whom is she burying her tongue these days??? Anyone? I'd love to know. I'm sure it's not Monica. Still to soon for that.

    January 20, 2013 at 1:11 pm |
    • Larry of Nazareth

      Do you find that you 72 IQ to be much of an impediment, Lemaitre?

      January 20, 2013 at 1:13 pm |
    • Unintelligent Designer

      Does your mom know you're on the computer again?

      January 20, 2013 at 1:14 pm |
    • Lemaitre

      What does "72 IQ" mean?

      January 20, 2013 at 1:14 pm |
    • Larry of Nazareth

      Perfect answer. Thanks.

      January 20, 2013 at 1:17 pm |
    • Lemaitre

      @UD – hey man, no mother jokes! Unless your name is Chelsey

      January 20, 2013 at 1:18 pm |
  11. Lemaitre


    January 20, 2013 at 1:03 pm |
    • Cedar Rapids

      He certainly called it.

      January 20, 2013 at 1:06 pm |
    • Lemaitre

      Here is your president all you weird gun owners and religious kooks who are not Liberal Democrats

      January 20, 2013 at 1:06 pm |
  12. The Amazing Syncopated Tuba Song-Stylings of Edna "Three Buttocks" Snortsniffle

    "Almost chosen" – in his imagination.

    What a steaming pile of right-wing cliche feculence! What a dingbat!

    January 20, 2013 at 1:00 pm |
    • vidal808

      I fully agree with you. This Laconte is writing a bunch of crap. Not one single word he writes makes any sense. he should crawl under a rock and stay there.....

      January 20, 2013 at 1:10 pm |
  13. James

    First line of this is way off base. Lincoln was NOT one of the most religious Presidents. He was, at the most, a deist like his predecessor Jefferson, and only ever mentioned "God" at all in speeches at the urging of his Secretary of State Seward or Secretary of Treasury Chase.
    If it had been up to Lincoln, "In God We Trust" would NOT have been put on the union's brand new "greenbacks", but Chase intervened.
    He was a sensible man and a masterful politician who understood that Church and State should remain always separate.

    January 20, 2013 at 12:59 pm |
  14. Lemaitre

    This question is for the whole group: Does anyone know who Bill Clinton is dating these days???

    January 20, 2013 at 12:53 pm |
    • Unintelligent Designer

      Not sure, but I'm guessing that you and this JP Carver are the same person.

      January 20, 2013 at 12:55 pm |
    • Lemaitre

      Never heard of JP Carver! Yesterday I was two people.

      January 20, 2013 at 12:57 pm |
    • LemaitreWatch

      J P Tarver. I was thinking the same.

      January 20, 2013 at 12:58 pm |
    • Unintelligent Designer

      Forgive me for not committing a troll's name to memory. I suspect that we'll soon see a third name appear, with very similar views to these 2 tards.

      January 20, 2013 at 12:59 pm |
    • LemaitreWatch

      He tries to start with "facts" about the universe based on his Engineering degree, and when called on things he can't support, I suppose, if this idiot Lemaitre is him, resorts to even more useless trolling.

      January 20, 2013 at 1:00 pm |
    • Lemaitre

      Well, I don't know what views you think we share. I'm just asking questions. I didn't express any views, per se.

      January 20, 2013 at 1:01 pm |
    • Unintelligent Designer

      I couldn't help but notice how they commented on each other's posts, and both post off-topic questions.

      January 20, 2013 at 1:04 pm |
  15. Manuel J.

    @ OneGodOneBrotherhood. The only problem I have with your thought is that you are assuming non-believers will allow believers to speak without being ridiculed, scorned, & generally admonished.

    I understand, as a Christian, these are the trials we are tested by and, I am accepting of these challenges. At the same time, today's non-believers are doing everything to quash our right to worship and obliterate God's name from every aspect of our public life. Lincoln, MLK, & many of our Founding Fathers are surely disgusted.

    January 20, 2013 at 12:52 pm |
    • Cedar Rapids

      Sorry but keep your personal faith personal.
      Saying you have to accept other religions and cannot be the soul 'official' religion is not 'quashing you right to worship'

      January 20, 2013 at 12:59 pm |
    • Cedar Rapids

      Freudian slip there, lol

      January 20, 2013 at 1:01 pm |
    • sam stone

      manuel: are non believers shutting down your churches? are non believers parading into your homes and declaring you have no right to pray?

      January 20, 2013 at 1:30 pm |
    • Gir

      The Founding Fathers are the ones who removed religion from public life because they saw what harm could be caused when delusion is allowed to direct public affairs.

      See Salem witch trials, Anne Hutchinson.

      January 20, 2013 at 1:41 pm |
  16. 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 it, 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 12:51 pm |
  17. SciGuy

    Lincoln on Secession
    In January, 1848, as a congressman Lincoln stated:

    "Any people anywhere, being inclined and having the power, have the right to rise up and shake off the existing government, and form a new one that suits them better. This is a most valuable, a most sacred right - a right which we hope and believe is to liberate the world. Nor is this right confined to cases in which the whole people of an existing government may choose to exercise it. Any portion of such people, that can, may revolutionize, and make their own of so much of the territory as they inhabit."

    Evidently, that sacred right doesn't apply to Americans, according to Lincoln and his successors.

    January 20, 2013 at 12:51 pm |
    • Gir

      And that's why our founding fathers established a peaceful means of "shaking of the existing government" without the bloodshed it took to remove the British: VOTING!

      January 20, 2013 at 1:37 pm |
    • SciGuy

      Really, Gir? You think Lincoln meant voting? Hardly.

      January 20, 2013 at 2:42 pm |
  18. Lemaitre

    Hey – I wonder if Jesse Jackson is current on his child support payments? You know what else I wonder about . . . how many illegitimate children does he REALLY have, besides the ones we know of?

    January 20, 2013 at 12:51 pm |
  19. mama k

    James Madison, POTUS #4, and the chief architect of the U.S. Constitution & Bill of Rights:

    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.)

    January 20, 2013 at 12:50 pm |
  20. mama k

    John Adams, POTUS #2:

    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])

    January 20, 2013 at 12:48 pm |
    • southernsugar

      I like all of your comments on history. Keep going!

      January 20, 2013 at 1:19 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.