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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. SciGuy

    Lincoln on Secession
    In January, 1848, as a congressman from Illinois, 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 12:47 pm |
  2. Santi Clause

    Didn't God deliver the Chosen People into bondage in the first place?

    January 20, 2013 at 12:44 pm |
    • Lemaitre

      Yeah – just like he led M. Lewinsky under the desk! She is one of the "chosen" people – if you know what I mean.

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

      What a troll. Have anything useful to do?

      January 20, 2013 at 12:53 pm |
    • Lemaitre

      What the F! I now have my own personal KGB agent assigned to me?

      January 20, 2013 at 12:55 pm |
  3. Lemaitre

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ix-AMYos0Js

    January 20, 2013 at 12:36 pm |
    • Lemaitre

      Remember the good old days in Chicago? Gosh I miss them.

      I love Obama's pastor designing his own quasi-african costume. LOL. Wright has more Irish blood than Jimmy Cagney.

      January 20, 2013 at 12:39 pm |
  4. Big Bob

    Jane! Stop this crazy thing!!!

    January 20, 2013 at 12:34 pm |
  5. Denis Knowles

    I got as far as "two of the most religious figures in American political history" and stopped. Why read an article by a person who doesn't appear to have a very clear view of history.

    January 20, 2013 at 12:34 pm |
  6. John P. Tarver

    The election of the child of an American slave to the Presidency would have been a true triumph in America's rightousness, but the African Slaver we eleceted has impoverished the American Black.

    January 20, 2013 at 12:26 pm |
    • Lemaitre

      You don't think he cares about the darkies he left behind in Chi-town, or in any inner-city for that matter, do you? Puh-leez. They are all pawns – tools to get him in power and having lunch with all the right white millionaires

      January 20, 2013 at 12:30 pm |
    • J P TarverWatch

      wah wah wah. what a bunch of crying babies. have anything based on reality to say?

      January 20, 2013 at 12:43 pm |
  7. StafCoyote

    The penultimate paragraph of the article, decrying "modern liberalism", was the sting in the scorpion's tail. We have for too long wrapped ourselves in a gaudy chasuble of hypocricy, declaring that all our ways are just and righteous altogether and never accepting the accountability that true exceptionalism would demand. Now, reading the angry Obamanating posts from the trolletariat, I see how unhinged so many have become. It is sad how the coming of a black man to the White House has undone so many that they have lost their faculty for rational thought or basic patriotism.

    January 20, 2013 at 12:24 pm |
  8. John P. Tarver

    I hope MLK's bible bursts minto flames when Obama touches it.

    January 20, 2013 at 12:20 pm |
    • Tom, Tom, the Piper's Son

      Oh, but you're not bitter, are you?

      January 20, 2013 at 12:22 pm |
    • John P. Tarver

      Obama is the opposite of MLK's (R) dream. An African slaver posing as an American.

      January 20, 2013 at 12:23 pm |
    • Lemaitre

      LOL!!!! Bursts into flames

      January 20, 2013 at 12:28 pm |
    • sam stone

      it must grieve you to no end that obama is president.

      choke on it

      January 20, 2013 at 1:43 pm |
  9. Name*penguin

    Republicans didn't complain about the debt they created. And how can you blame the debt on the President when it is Congress who holds the purse? And why is it that the states whose economy derives mostly from agriculture vote Republican when the agricultural enterprise is the most socialized system in the world? And why do the southern red states take in more government largess than the other states. (Might they be red states because people who live in them have IQs about half of the average American citizen?)

    January 20, 2013 at 12:19 pm |
    • John P. Tarver

      Last time Congress shut down the Governemnt, we got a balanced budget in return.

      January 20, 2013 at 12:21 pm |
  10. John P. Tarver

    MLK was a registered Republican.

    January 20, 2013 at 12:17 pm |
  11. Lemaitre

    $17,000,000,000,000 in debt and counting. I say raise the debt ceiling another 5 or 6 trillion. Hey, if it helps just one child, wouldn't have all been worth it?

    January 20, 2013 at 12:13 pm |
    • Tom, Tom, the Piper's Son

      What's your alternative to raising it, bozo?

      Whine on, you loser.

      January 20, 2013 at 12:23 pm |
  12. John P. Tarver

    America is so foolish as to believe the son of an African slaver is somehow the same as the son of an Amerian Slave. MLK would be horrified by Obama.

    January 20, 2013 at 12:12 pm |
  13. John P. Tarver

    The religious bigotry of the CNN trolls got my B787 posts cancelled, even though it is my area of Engineering Practice. Obama is evil and so are his minions.

    January 20, 2013 at 12:09 pm |
  14. Joey Isotta-Fraschini ©™

    If I were deciding whether to buy a slave or not on the basis of morality, I wouldn't have to consult the Bible.

    January 20, 2013 at 12:07 pm |
    • John P. Tarver

      That information comes from Obama's family Koran.

      January 20, 2013 at 12:10 pm |
  15. Fact Checker

    King WAS a liberal. Nor are liberals G-dless as you imply. We simply don't wrap ourselves in a flag and insist on an exclusively Christian G-d to display our patriotism and love of America.

    January 20, 2013 at 12:06 pm |
    • Lemaitre

      No, you burn the flag and denounce Christianity and call it patriotism and (true) Christianity.

      January 20, 2013 at 12:08 pm |
  16. John P. Tarver

    Islam created perpetual Black Slavery inn Africa and Obama is the chgild of theese slavers.

    January 20, 2013 at 12:06 pm |
    • Unintelligent Designer

      Trolling once again?

      January 20, 2013 at 12:08 pm |
  17. John P. Tarver

    Dr. King would vomit Obama out; just like Jesus has.

    January 20, 2013 at 12:01 pm |
    • Lemaitre

      Dr King would be called an Uncle Tom today.

      January 20, 2013 at 12:03 pm |
    • JM

      Republicans make dirt look intelligent.

      January 20, 2013 at 12:04 pm |
    • Lemaitre

      @JM – Borrowing the same rights you have garnered to yourself, I hereby solemnly declare that you cannot call yourself a Christian and believe that about your fellow man. There!

      January 20, 2013 at 12:06 pm |
    • JM

      I know I'm a sinner.

      January 20, 2013 at 12:08 pm |
  18. John P. Tarver

    We may as well have elected the son of the KKK as this African Slaver.

    January 20, 2013 at 11:59 am |
    • Lemaitre

      Or Senator Byrd (D)

      Grand Kliegle

      January 20, 2013 at 12:02 pm |
    • J P TarverWatch

      Not this idiot again. Always the wild claims that you can't back up, eh Tarver?

      (For anyone new to the blog, Tarver loves to show his depth of scientific knowledge, but when frequently called on the lack thereof, no one runs and hides better.)

      January 20, 2013 at 12:03 pm |
    • John P. Tarver

      When LBJ decided to sign enebaling legislation for the 15th Amendment Robert "sheets" Byrd opposed the Voting Rights Act of 1965, so among Southern Senators, he alone was not forced out of the Democratic Party by the Ku Klux Klan.

      January 20, 2013 at 12:05 pm |
    • JM

      'A half-wit gave you a piece of his mind, and you held on to it.'

      January 20, 2013 at 12:06 pm |
    • J P TarverWatch

      I'm sorry, I was speaking of JPT's depth of knowledge. I forgot to air-quote knowledge. It should have been "knowledge".

      January 20, 2013 at 12:07 pm |
    • Unintelligent Designer

      JPT Watch, I can vouch. He kept posting young earth nonsense. When confronted with facts, his answers never addressed the facts and he would move onto some other claim. He also made a very misogynistic comment in a thread, which made me believe he was trolling. Judging by the obvious lack of intelligence, he is either a POS or just a troll.

      January 20, 2013 at 12:48 pm |
  19. OneGodOneBrotherhood

    For me, the issues regarding the ideologies of both modern liberalism and modern conservatism is extremely confusing. I also believe that most Americans feel the same way, since the country is so split in its thinking. The problem, I think, is that bad immoral politicians have taken over our political parties and are regurgitating rhetoric which they think we want to hear, but which they themselves do not believe.

    I do not believe this author should have singled out modern liberalism as a movement which "scorns.."the sacred heritage of our naton"". For, modern conservatism has made the idea of a sacred heritage an abomonation by the actions they have taken in the name of God. Same on all of them!

    While I am a Christian, I believe one can certainly be moral and make perfectly fine decisions for our country without being inherently faithful. The problem I see with this issue is that hatred has taken the place of love and intolerance (both sides) has taken the place of tolerance. For me, as a Christian, and setting aside the zelous nature of Paul's writings, I believe that Jesus would have welcomed all people with the love He showed our world. The problem is that the "religious right" (which is neither religous, nor right) has tried to over extend their authority by claiming to speak for all Christians. I personally don't fault non-believers for wanting to get as far away from us Christians as possible, But, please don't think these misguided, power-hungry, hate mongers speak for all of us.

    Jesus speaks of Love (agape) as being the greatest virtue we can possess. But, one does not need to know God to feel Love. Unfortunately, one who claims to know God may also feel a great deal of Hate. This, I believe, is the root of our problem today – certainly true in Congress. The author is correct when he called for the moral compass of Washington to be reset. However, I believe that one does not need the faith of Lincoln or King to hold ourselves to a higher moral standard. We (believers and non-believers) should come together, in love, and hold congress to the standard we live by each and every day. Only then will all of our freedoms be restored in this great nation.

    January 20, 2013 at 11:56 am |
  20. John P. Tarver

    The son of an African Slaver posing as the son of an American slave. How could America have been duped so badly? Obama is the opposite of MLK (R) Dream. Just as Andrew Johnson caused the Executive to be restrained by the 14th Amendment, after cancelling the Emancipation Proclomation; Obama trys to cancel the 14th Amendment over debt and spending.

    January 20, 2013 at 11:53 am |
    • Lemaitre

      He is enslaving us all with debt to pay for his largess.

      January 20, 2013 at 11:56 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.