Presidential Palaver: Resolving To Save Abe Lincoln From The 'Christian Nation' Crowd

U.S. Rep. J. Randy Forbes is attempting to use Abraham Lincoln as a vehicle to promote 'Christian nation' claptrap.

Religious Right extremists and their allies in Congress just won't let up on their crusade to make the Capitol Visitors Center (CVC) a showcase of "Christian nation" propaganda.

In February, I wrote an article for Church & State about Religious Right attacks on the Capitol Visitor Center. Various groups assailed the new facility for not having enough religious content. What they really sought were exhibits giving their twisted sectarian interpretation of American history, a view that is rejected by mainstream historians.

Just when it looked liked things were blowing over, U.S. Rep. J. Randy Forbes, a Religious Right point man, is back with a new assault. Forbes has introduced a resolution (H. Con. Res. 34) mandating that a Bible owned by President Abraham Lincoln be displayed at the CVC – but there's more to it than that.

As law professor Howard M. Friedman notes on his "Religion Clause" blog, Forbes' resolution "seems designed to stir up the controversy between those who want more religion in government and those who support a robust Establishment Clause." (The Establishment Clause is that part of the First Amendment stating that Congress shall make no law "respecting an establishment of religion" – a key component in the separation of church and state.)

As Friedman points out, the resolution is studded with language designed to be provocative. It states that the "Holy Bible is God's Word" and calls on the Capitol Preservation Commission to display the Lincoln Bible "for the benefit of all its visitors to fully understand and appreciate America's history and Godly heritage."

It's offensive to see Forbes attempting to use Lincoln as a vehicle to promote "Christian nation" claptrap. He's merely trying to exploit one of our greatest leaders by laboring to portray him as some type of antebellum Jerry Falwell. In fact, the religious views of our 16th president have been hotly debated by scholars for years.

As president, Lincoln attended services at a Presbyterian church. However, he never officially joined any church or made a public profession of faith beyond some vague generalities. He was clearly familiar with the Bible, yet there are reports that he was skeptical of some of its claims.

Forbes' resolution does a disservice to the complexity of Lincoln's views. What he is proposing is far removed from a display created by legitimate historians that explores the interesting question of Lincoln's spiritual views and states upfront that there remains much we don't know.

Such displays probably exist in history museums right now. They have been created by professional historians who aren't interested in proselytizing or making theological judgments about what the Bible is or how it ought to be interpreted.

As we've noted before on this blog, the Capitol Visitors Center is designed to help all Americans – people of many different religious faiths and none – understand how the federal government works. The center has proved popular with visitors and is doing just that. I wish Forbes and his legion of theological axe grinders would leave it alone.