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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. Cole

    This article seems to discount the idea that we can find morality via rational means. Example: Maybe it is not God-based, but providing affordable health insurance to millions of low-income families is undeniably the moral thing to do. Your "morality," based in supernatural stories, has led to centuries of hatred, violence, and suppression. Maybe we should appreciate that our culture is evolving to a level where we do not need to rely on religion as an argument for providing inalienable rights to every individual.

    January 20, 2013 at 11:15 am |
    • Lemaitre

      Where do those inalienable rights come from?

      January 20, 2013 at 11:17 am |
    • SciGuy

      Undeniably? No, it depends on how you attain that goal. If you steal from some to provide for others, then it is undeniably a sin. Thou shalt not steal I am familiar with. Thou shalt provide affordable health care never heard of.

      January 20, 2013 at 11:18 am |
    • HenryMiller

      "Providing affordable health insurance to millions of low-income families" might be a moral thing for an individual to do. When it's turned into a coercive collective action that forces other people to pay to achieve your social goals, it's decidedly immoral.

      January 20, 2013 at 11:36 am |
    • Cole

      Certainly these are debatable topics. My argument, though, is that religion is not a necessary foundation for morality. I know that I should not kill people. I did not become aware of this after reading a list that informed me I "shall not" kill people. Instead, I know that killing someone would unjustly end what was a potential life, and it would deeply hurt many individuals tied to that person. Reason leads to this conclusion.

      January 20, 2013 at 11:54 am |
  2. HenryMiller

    If “the goal of America is freedom,” that goal is made just that more difficult to achieve every time a government deprives us of a freedom. Whether it's the freedom to make our own healthcare arrangements, the freedom of women to control their own bodies, the freedom of people to love whom they love, or the freedom to arm ourselves as we deem necessary, denying those freedoms denies our heritage. Every time a government undertakes to say to us, "this you may not do; this you must," it diminishes freedom.

    Democracy cannot long endure when those who make the laws scorn those on whom those laws are to be imposed. When laws are passed in back-room deals, against the wishes of a majority of us, it's an attack on democracy. When laws are passed not for the good of the people of this country but for personal gain, or for the benefit of some at the sacrifice of others, or to try to direct the country toward a "vision" not of the peoples' own devising, it's an attack on democracy.

    A society is of the people of that society. It's not an artefact of the government of that society. The purpose of a democratic government is to do the peoples' will, not to impose its will on the people.

    January 20, 2013 at 11:15 am |
  3. MomentofClarity

    "If you don't think like me, you're not a Real American(TM)". Why didn't he just say that instead of try to make it sound smart and failing miserably in the process?

    January 20, 2013 at 11:14 am |
  4. Rob

    Joseph Loconte, please travel and educate yourself... Your religious nutshell stinks.... Stop embarrassing yourself with this garbage.

    January 20, 2013 at 11:13 am |
  5. SciGuy

    Lincoln was a Hypocrite with the capital H. You cannot legitimately claim to believe in govt of, by, and for the people while you are crushing those who are in the process of securing exactly that for themselves!

    January 20, 2013 at 11:09 am |
    • HenryMiller

      One of the advantages of winning a war is that yo get to write the "history" books and thus shape the myths.

      January 20, 2013 at 11:30 am |
    • SciGuy

      True Henry. I am painfully aware of that. The fact that it should be obvious to even the casual reader of history makes me wonder at the discernment level of the average American.

      January 20, 2013 at 11:35 am |
  6. Bob Fates from Chicago

    I get a kick out of the fact that an athiest like 'honest' Abe would have a bible.

    January 20, 2013 at 11:09 am |
  7. Dave T

    The only way to balance the budget is to greatly expand our jobs base. We may not have to look any further than our military and the items they use to do this.
    Things that were originally created for military use were later recreated for commercial purposes. We had our highway system built to transport items for the military; today, there are huge commercial uses. The cell phone technologies and the Internet breakthroughs were originally built for the military and we now have expanded it for business use. Are there other things used by the military that can solve today's society and business challenges?
    They are already using heavy lifting drone helicopters to move supplies into Afghanistan. Can these drone helicopters be used for the following?
    1) Can drones be used to move food and water to places where there are no developed roads and bridges in very impoverished parts of the world? Did you know 40-60 percent of all food produced is wasted? Just Google it. Sometimes this food goes to waste due to impassable roads.
    By using an army of drones to reduce world hunger, will speak volumes across the Internet. Thus may increase our standing of the US across the world.
    b) Utilize these new heavy lifting drone helicopters to be used to pre-position emergency supplies before a major super storm is about to occur in our great nation. There are automatic warehouses that use robots to fill shipping/trucking containers in record time. Then wherever these storms are about 48-72 hours from crossing our shoreline; these warehouses will fill these containers with emergency supplies. Then the drones will airlift these containers to open air areas, like school grounds, parks and large empty parking lots. Then emergency personnel could distribute these supplies from the back of these shipping/trucking containers. Some items, like generators, could be sold to people. Emergency personnel could utilize those new smart phones credit card readers to process payments.
    c) Utilize those drones to help put out wildfires when they occur. Perhaps there could be several of those drone helicopters produced for the same price as one regular piloted helicopter. Then we may better contain those fires faster.
    d) Utilize those drones to air lift electrical line robots to places where lines are down after a major storm. Can researchers develop better robots to do such work? Then these drones will simply lift then lower these robots onto useful places to where it will do the most good. This may help speed the process to get power back on faster, like places after super storm Sandy and for other future disasters... Perhaps, there other uses of the heavy lifting drone helicopters that I missed.
    2) Utilize those navy ships that are being retired to be used as temporary housing and/or hospital purposes. Utilize large cargo ships for emergency supplies, as well. These ships could be docked just offshore after major earthquakes or major hurricanes. Military helicopters, including drones, could air lift supplies from the cargo ships to open air areas. Then other helicopters could air lift the injured from the open-air areas back to the hospital ships. People without homes on shore could reside in temporary housing on the now retired Navy ships.
    Are there other items used by the military today that can be remade into something later for commercial purposes?

    January 20, 2013 at 11:09 am |
  8. mr Howdy

    The Founding Fathers, though Christians were also intellectuals FULLY AWARE OF CLASSICAL IDEALS....they knew that a democracy like the one of Athens which though brief produced tremendous advancements in human understanding could create a nation unlike any on Earth. Lincoln too was an intellectual, and when saying something like almost chosen he was alluding in fact to the idea of a free people who though NOT GODLY were still able to advance the cause of humanity.......the principle idea behind this nation is the Greek Olympian Philolosophy which has powered two great civilizations in powering both the Athenian civilization and the Roman civilization if even the Roman tended to commercial applications rather than ideal as was the Athenian.....
    The founding fathers knew very well that belief is a personal matter and ANYONE AT ALL CAN COME TO BELIEVE HE IS CHOSEN ANYONE FROM THE SMARTEST TO THE MOST DISTURBED and that religion can never be at the base of an Olympian Civilization and if we are to survive WE MUST ADHERE TO THOSE OLYMPIAN IDEALS!!! AND ONLY THOSE SAVED THE NATION IN LINCOLNS TIME AND ONLY THOSE SAME IDEALS WILL SAVE OUR NATION AND OUR CIVILIZATION NOW....we live in an OLYMPIAN CIVILIZATION WITH SOME ATHENIAN, AND ROMAN MODIFICATIONS....we allow freedom of religion as did the Greeks and Romans and we allow people to pursue commercial success to enhance their personal freedoms as did the Romans! The past thirty years have allowed a creepy heavily religious ideal to poison the foundation of our nation and if this continues WE ARE DOOMED! Just look at your debt and see what happens when you start believing you are CHOSEN! In the Olympian venue YOU MUST PROVE YOU ARE CHOSEN BY PERFORMANCE!!!! Not because YOU THINK SO!

    January 20, 2013 at 11:09 am |
    • mr Howdy

      Yet another stooge who writes what his bosses want to hear...as long as he lives in luxury....who cares what really happens to the nation!

      January 20, 2013 at 11:16 am |
  9. Dale

    Funny that you actually mad the statement "Lincoln well knew the capacity of religious zeal to poison our politics" but didn't seem to understand why. Notice that his comments refer generically to "God" and avoid attachment to specific denomination, as you do with your Israel references. God could mean Allah, Buddah, Krishna, jehova

    There is NO way to ensure freedom by endorsing one specific religion, or denying the rights to not believe in god as well.

    To me there is nothing more frightening , or dangerous that a country with nuclear weapons, that also believes that an imaginary "God" has chosen them to be the rightful owners of a land.

    Are you saying that the mass murder and genocide of the native Americans by Columbus and Cortez, was really "ordained" by God, and what kind of sick God would ordain such a thing.

    use the Brains that your "God" supposedly gave you.

    January 20, 2013 at 11:06 am |
  10. Carlos

    It is sad that Obama and the rest of the liberals use these hero's of the past to promote their agenda, especially when their agenda is nothing like the vision of the past heros. Dr. King was a great man! Obama is a pompus, self-absobed fool who is dividing our country and promoting an agenda that goes against what Amarica has stood for. So much for freedom and responsibility. Don't get me wrong, the ultra-cons are just as bad in the other direction, but at least they are not getting the free pass by the media.

    January 20, 2013 at 11:06 am |
    • sybaris

      "the ultra-cons are just as bad in the other direction, but at least they are not getting the free pass by the media."

      Well then you need to broaden you media horizon and tune into Faux News or visit Free Republic and American Thinker

      January 20, 2013 at 11:16 am |
  11. heliocracy

    Everybody who is the least bit religious posits that God agrees with them and is against those who disagree. Liberals do not "scorn the religious heritage" of this country, they just realize, as the Founding Fathers did, that if you give one religion's tenets the weight of law, everyone who is not of that religion loses their Freedom of Religion by definition...for all practical purposes it becomes illegal to not live according to the dominant religion's creed. That's a far cry from the "godless liberal" charge the author seems keen to make here. I would expect a history professor to be a bit more even-handed.

    January 20, 2013 at 11:03 am |
    • Unintelligent Designer

      Well put. Even if we became a Christian theocracy, Christians themselves still wouldn't agree on what is the "correct" version of Christianity. It would be anything but freedom of religion since one chosen denomination would reap the benefits of being backed by government.

      January 20, 2013 at 11:07 am |
    • debra

      Well stated. I still like to think that we are a Christian nation because this is my nation and I am a Christian. I admire Obama and see alot of the criticism as racist and paranoid. But we are a nation of freedom that allows the talk – the greatest country in the world.

      January 20, 2013 at 12:10 pm |
  12. wow

    I want to meet our Choosers!!

    January 20, 2013 at 11:02 am |
  13. davejjj

    A pathetic grasping at a religious ideal apparently embodied by the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt. The Bible? See Exodus 20-31.
    "And if a man beats his male or female servant with a rod, so that he dies under his hand, he shall surely be punished. Notwithstanding, if he remains alive a day or two, he shall not be punished; for he is his property."

    January 20, 2013 at 11:00 am |
    • debra

      Try reading the entire Bible – including the New Testament.

      January 20, 2013 at 12:12 pm |
  14. hitman

    Impeach Obama asap!

    January 20, 2013 at 11:00 am |
    • heliocracy

      For what?

      January 20, 2013 at 11:05 am |
    • debra

      For what?

      January 20, 2013 at 12:14 pm |
  15. The Mockingjay

    It is true. We are a chosen people to possess this land of North America and God said so. In the Book of Mormon, them Lord said: 9 And now, we can behold the decrees of God concerning this land, that it is a land of promise; and whatsoever nation shall possess it shall serve God, or they shall be swept off when the fulness of his wrath shall come upon them. And the fulness of his wrath cometh upon them when they are ripened in iniquity. (Book of Mormon, Ether, Chapter 2)

    January 20, 2013 at 10:51 am |
    • Really??

      The book of Moron was written by a scam artist, a con man, well after we had established ourselves in this land. And what of the native peoples who lived here for millenium before we even knew it was here, Are they chosen as well? If someone just moved here, did moving them here now allow them to be chosen?
      Religious rediculousness.

      January 20, 2013 at 10:56 am |
    • Cedar Rapids

      Thanks for that laugh.

      January 20, 2013 at 10:56 am |
    • Unintelligent Designer

      Absolutely, right after an attempted genocide on the native Indians and after all the slaves finished picking cotton.

      January 20, 2013 at 10:58 am |
    • Lipschitz

      No you are not. North America includes a couple of other countries. In case you are planning to invade Canada and Mexico you are not going to possess. Fair warning.

      January 20, 2013 at 11:04 am |
    • Rob

      Beliefs of profound and severe retardation. Absolutely no grasp of concrete reality whatsoever.... Just to think that people like you have a right to vote nauseates me.

      January 20, 2013 at 11:10 am |
  16. Lipschitz

    Ah yes – the blame God angle. Don't blame God, blame man who has taken and twisted (and killed by the way) everything that God has put out there for us and used it to justify killing others. But look at what we are talking about – the USA. A society that has thrived on blaming others. Always on the lookout, and always finding, a convenient external scapegoat to blame for its woes. What other society in the world has potentially so much available to it but yet is so polarized that it brings its economy to the brink every year at budget time. Do you realize how much damage you do to yourselves on an annual basis by doing that? All for brinkmanship and to score points with the electorate. External terrorists don't need to touch you anymore, you have your own internal terrorists who are doing a fine job. Your debt is at a tipping point where, in 10 – 20 years time, unless you take some drastic steps now, you will be Greece. And it will be countries like Germany, China, Brazil and Canada that will have to bail you out. So stop blaming God and others AND GET YOUR FREAKING HOUSE IN ORDER.

    January 20, 2013 at 10:50 am |
  17. mason

    what a bunch of drivil Dr. Loconte...religious "faith" and all its associated nonsense have been evolutionary coping mechanisms that became tax free rackets...please dare to question and think Dr. Loconte about real things and step into the Age of Reason

    January 20, 2013 at 10:49 am |
  18. TomG

    It's embarassing that CNN would allow a misinformed piece of drivel like this to be published on ther website. Lincoln, like Obama, was suspected of being an agnostic and an atheist for most of his life. Morality isn't about invoking the name of God for everything you do, it's about your ACTIONS! You talk about liberals not believing in natural and inalienable rights when it's actually religious nuts like you that are the ones actively trying to deny rights to gays and women. What a confused piece of garbage.

    January 20, 2013 at 10:46 am |
  19. Origin of Life

    Evolution wins thumbs up, time for religion to get the hell out of the way !
    Morality is for chimps too go figure !
    Morality: It's not just for humans !
    http://www.cnn.com/2013/01/19/health/chimpanzee-fairness-morality/index.html?hpt=hp_c2

    January 20, 2013 at 10:39 am |
    • Peter Bishop

      You are welcome to crawl back into the ocean at any time...

      January 20, 2013 at 10:47 am |
  20. sybaris

    Nice cherry picking there Dr. Loconte.

    January 20, 2013 at 10:39 am |
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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.