On a recent vacation with my wife, Liz, I scratched two items off my bucket list.
First, we visited Mount Airy, N.C., Andy Griffith’s boyhood hometown, where we took pictures of each other sitting behind Andy’s courthouse desk, toured the town in an old Ford squad car, and meandered through the Griffith museum. For me, a lifelong fan of The Andy Griffith Show, it was pure heaven.
Second, we went to Appomattox Court House, Va., where in 1865, Gen. Robert E. Lee surrendered the remains of his Confederate army to Union Gen. Ulysses S. Grant, effectively ending a civil war that had killed 750,000 Americans in four years and had left the South a wasteland.
I’ve been to a slew of Civil War battlefields, but I somehow had never made it to Appomattox.
As we traveled across the Virginia countryside toward the shrine, Liz and I fell into a conversation about the role religion played in our nation’s most horrendous war.
That conversation later led me to think about a related issue: just how malleable Christian beliefs are.
Abraham Lincoln, in his second inaugural address, delivered barely a month before Lee’s surrender, observed that both North and South “read the same Bible and pray to the same God, and each invokes His aid against the other. It may seem strange that any men should dare to ask a just God’s assistance in wringing their bread from the sweat of other men’s faces, but let us judge not, that we be not judged. The prayers of both could not be answered. That of neither has been answered fully.”
Lincoln was, as usual, astute.
The abolitionist movement in the North was led by Christians convinced that God abhorred slavery. Some were willing to end it by any necessary means, including violence.
Southern Christians were equally convinced that slavery served God’s natural order, that the Lord meant the stronger to rule over the weaker. Southern Baptists split from their northern brothers and sisters over the issue long before the war broke out. When the Confederacy created its great seal, it chose as its motto “Deo Vindice,” meaning roughly, “with God as our vindicator.”
From a distance of more than 150 years, it’s easy now for us to wag our heads at those Confederates’ gross folly. The vast majority of us agree that the abolitionists were closer to Jesus than the pro-slavery faction.
But it’s also easy to see the same type of split at work today among our churches, with to this point no clear, final resolution.
For instance, 81 percent of white evangelicals who voted in the 2016 presidential election cast their ballots for Donald Trump, as did many conservative Roman Catholics.
Some evangelical leaders — including the Rev. Jerry Falwell Jr. and the Rev. Franklin Graham — have hailed Trump as God’s man for the hour, a servant with the stature of an Old Testament king. His election left them giddy. Falwell even called Trump “the dream president.”
Yet millions of other U.S. Christians, including a minority of white evangelicals, moderate Catholics and I’m sure the mass of mainline Protestants, are appalled by Trump and everything he stands for. They believe he’s practically the Antichrist.
I’d imagine there are people of honest intentions on both sides, just as there were during the Civil War.
But you have to wonder, again, how people can claim to worship the same Lord, can read the same scriptures and then can arrive at such diametrically opposed positions.
In another of his writings, discovered after his death, Lincoln said that although both sides in major conflicts assume that God is on their side, one side absolutely must be wrong, and possibly both sides are. It might be, he speculated, that in our country’s Civil War, God was working a purpose of his own that neither side could comprehend.
It’s hard to expand on anything Lincoln wrote. He was, after all, Abraham Lincoln, a sage light-years ahead of the rest of us.
However, I would suggest this as a central element of Christians’ problem: We mortals tend to read into our scriptures and doctrines what we’d prefer they said rather than face what they do say.
The Bible — particularly the New Testament — and the basic, historical tenets of the Christian faith are pretty clear about where we should stand on most matters. But we arrive at an issue with our own prejudices and presuppositions, and then, subconsciously for the most part, try to bend God’s will to our own ends.
Instead of trying to reform ourselves into the image of the Lord, we recreate the Lord in our own fallen images, and we act accordingly. Often with tragic results.
Paul Prather is pastor of Bethesda Church near Mount Sterling. You may email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.