Why Lincoln Matters

Chuck Colson
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Posted: Sep 03, 2004 12:00 AM

For the past few weeks, it seems that every time you watched a cable news program or a convention commentary, there was former New York governor Mario Cuomo, talking about his new book, Why Lincoln Matters: Today More Than Ever.

Cuomo urges ?conservatives and liberals alike? to ?resist the impulse to make Lincoln over in their own image.? Yet, in matters of religion and public life, Cuomo?s Lincoln  bears an uncanny resemblance to Cuomo himself.

Cuomo told CNN?s Larry King that Lincoln ?was not a particularly religious person.? I disagree, as do many scholars?but we?ll leave that to historians. What I will take issue with is how Cuomo defines faith: as a suspension of intellect.

For Cuomo, the lack of absolute proof disqualifies a religiously informed position as a basis of public policy. That?s why, according to Cuomo, Lincoln ?would never have built a public policy on a purely religious premise.? Instead, Lincoln would have insisted on a ?premise that everybody, religious or not religious . . . would accept,? one with a ?rationale that goes beyond your religious faith.?

Cuomo makes it clear that he?s referring to President Bush. The former governor claims that when Bush announced his policy on embryonic stem-cell research, he was saying, in effect: ?This is what I believe, because I?m a religious person. And you must believe it, too.? Of course, President Bush said no such thing.

The idea that opposition to embryonic stem-cell research is purely religiously-driven is fatuous. Many opponents, like Dr. Leon Kass, chairman of the President?s Council on Bioethics, are not moved by religion. Their opposition proceeds from what science tells us about the humanity of the fetus. Their ethical concerns are grounded in natural law and where experimentation on humans leads us.

Cuomo?s arguments are best understood as a sequel to his 1984 speech at Notre Dame, in which he argued that deeply held convictions, especially religiously informed ones, must await ?a consensus view of right and wrong? before they can become the basis for public policy. To do otherwise, he claimed, is to suspend reason in policy debates.

Wrong. Faith guides and often transcends intellect and reason, but it does not require its suspension. Is the governor really suggesting that St. Augustine, Thomas Aquinas, John Calvin, and John Paul II suspended their intellect? Has he forgotten that the university system was created by the church?

The greatest irony of the governor?s invocation of Lincoln is that there was no ?consensus view of right and wrong? regarding slavery. Slavery ended despite the lack a consensus because people whose faith taught them that the status quo was wrong set out to change it. They learned to express their convictions in terms that people of different faiths, or no faith, could understand. What they did not do was wait until everyone agreed with them.

Much the same can be said of the Civil Rights movement. When Martin Luther King, Jr., wrote his Letter from Birmingham Jail, he invoked Augustine and Aquinas in support of defying an unjust law.

So why should contemporary religiously inspired concerns be held to a different standard, as people are trying to do today? Our sixteenth president, for one, would have found the idea astonishing.


For further reading and information:

Governor Mario Cuomo, ?Religious Belief and Public Morality: A Catholic Governor?s Perspective,? Remarks delivered at Notre Dame University, 13 September 1984. (Courtesy of the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life.)

See also the transcript of the Pew Forum event, ?Religion on the Stump: Politics and Faith in America,? 2 October 2002.

Roberto Rivera y Carlo, ?First Things First: Voting and the Sanctity of Life,? Boundless, 2 September 2004.

See the ?Worldview for Parents? pages, ?America?s Religious Roots? and ?The First Liberty.?

BreakPoint Commentary No. 030212, ?Strength for Anxious Days: Lincoln?s Spiritual Leadership.?

BreakPoint Commentary No. 030922, ?Sorely Needed Wisdom: Wrestling with Genesis.?

Martin Luther King, Jr., Letter from a Birmingham Jail, 16 April 1963.

Arthur F. Holmes, ?Wanted: Christian Scholars!? BreakPoint WorldView, July/August 2003.

Nigel M. de S. Cameron, God and Caesar: The Logic of Christian Political Responsibility, The Wilberforce Forum.

Ted Olsen, ?Weblog: Is the Republican Convention More Secular Than the Democratic One Was?? Christianity Today, 1 September 2004.