To this day, people continue to find Jackie Kennedy Onassis an irresistible icon with her refined bearing and regal features. It’s no surprise then that the recent release of hours of interviews she conducted in 1964 with Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., are creating such a stir. She was just 34 at the time so her opinions were hardly leavened with the wisdom of years but they are never-the-less interesting and sometimes telling. My favorite is her admission that President Kennedy went to Catholic Mass without fail, not because he was especially devoted but rather because as she said, "he wasn’t quite sure, but if it was that way, he wanted to have that on his side." She chalked it up to JFK’s being superstitious. When in doubt, be devout.
John Kennedy was in good company where a certain amount of religious ambivalence is concerned. George Washington much preferred to stay at home on Mount Vernon Sundays. He was also known for his characterization of God as "Divine Providence", the belief that God was more likely to be simply directing things from above as opposed to being overly interested in our earthly expressions of piety. Washington, like Thomas Jefferson, was famously tolerant of other faiths and religions, believed in religious liberty and avoided discussing his religious views in public.
"Lincoln" by Alexander Gardner
Jefferson, when writing about Washington’s ability to avoid revealing his religious views, referred to him as "The Old Fox" and "cunning." It’s hard not to conclude that Jefferson was writing admiringly. Washington’s religious slipperiness was a conscious act, a sort of 18th century Don’t Ask/Don’t Tell. Abraham Lincoln was similarly circumspect about public expressions of devotion. Lincoln’s law partner and friend, William Herndon, said that his beliefs were grounded in universal law and evolution. Lincoln had apparently concluded that the acceptance of evolution was not a bar to a belief in a supreme being.
As a Republican, Lincoln wouldn’t make the cut today. These days’ leaders of all stripes feel compelled to associate themselves with Christian symbolism and the more fundamental, the better. Presidents and presidential candidates yammer on about God, prayer, faith and church as if the failure to do so makes them less qualified to lead. More than one Republican candidate for the presidency is quite comfortable with the repudiation of evolution as the explanation for earthly and human development.
At least two issues are worrying. The first is, of course, the apparent need to inject one’s religion into government. The other is the inclination for some candidates to disregard widely respected scientific conclusions in deference to the literal interpretation of religious texts. I’m all for faith, but logic has a place, too. Do we really want national leaders who actually believe that the world was created over the course of 6 days a couple of thousand years ago?
If Abraham Lincoln, who rose to the presidency after the equivalent of one year of formal education, could intellectually reconcile evolution with the existence of God, what are we to think of the current presidential aspirants and their bloated resumes?
………. Eric Lamar
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