Thursday, April 16, 2015

Reader Writes: "How Do We Know That the Bigotry and Bullying 'in God's Name' Isn't What 'God' Is All About and What 'God' Wants?"

In a comment this morning responding to my posting yesterday featuring Tom Ehrich's observation that we in the American public square need to have done with the bigotry and bullying done in God's name and giving a very bad name to Christians, ClevelandGirl writes,  

How do we know that the bigotry and bullying "in god's name" *isn't* what "god" is all about and what "god" wants? 

That's a very good question. In fact, it happens to be featured just this morning by Fred Clark as he reports at his Slacktivist site about a fireside chat Abraham Lincoln held with a delegation of abolitionist ministers on New Year's eve 1862. Fred cites the journal of Nathaniel Brown, a Baptist missionary who was part of the delegation.

Brown reports that he and the other ministers urged Lincoln to abolish slavery because abolition was God's will and in accord with biblical teaching. Lincoln replied that, though he agreed with the abolitionist cause, he wasn't nearly so clear on what God wanted and to whom God chooses to speak. As he pointed out, other ministers just as hotly argued that slavery was ordained by God and supported by the bible. 

According to Brown, Lincoln concluded,

I am not so certain that God’s views and feelings in respect to it are the same as mine. If his feelings were like mine, how could he have permitted it to remain so long? I am obliged to believe that God may not, after all, look upon it in the same light as I do.

I hear a lot of wisdom in Lincoln's words here. They're a warning about the pretensions of people who claim to speak on God's behalf and to know God's mind with precision. They're a reminder that the history of religions — of all religions — is a muddled, mixed bag full of goodies and horrors. 

And so the founders of the American experiment were wise to draw a bright and shining line between church and state, which did not permit any one religious body or the leaders of any one religious body to set themselves up in the place of God and dictate to everyone else. The hubris that results from the pretension that one knows the mind of God and speaks on God's behalf militates against democratic values and the common good.  

It allows people who have no reason in the world — no sound reason, that is to say — to claim a moral superiority they have not earned, as they lord it over others and refuse to sell cakes to them or to fill their doctor-ordered prescriptions. I hear Lincoln saying that a sane society does not set up individuals to be little gods in the way that the current crop of "religious freedom" acts wants to do.

More's the pity, for all of us in American society today, that the leaders of Mr. Lincoln's party have long since thrown that plainspun, historically informed, rich wisdom to the winds.

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