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Is Abe Lincoln's theology still useful in today's America?

In less than three weeks, on Feb. 7, President Joe Biden will deliver the annual "State of the Union" address to Congress.

And-lightI've been thinking about the uses and misuses of presidential speeches recently as I've just finished reading Jon Meacham's excellent new book, And There Was Light: Abraham Lincoln and the American Struggle.

Meacham, not surprisingly, spends a fair amount of time not just on Lincoln's public speeches but also on what he perceives to be the theology at the root of them.

Lincoln was, to put it plainly, a religiously complicated man. Many of his detractors viewed him as a skeptic about all religions and well outside the Christian family. In more recent years, some Christian leaders who would describe themselves as conservative or evangelical have sought to portray Lincoln as a born-again member of their theological family. The full truth almost certainly would be in neither of those camps.

The speech that Meacham delves into most deeply to explore its spiritual/theological aspects is Lincoln's Second Inaugural Address, given in March 1865, just a matter of weeks before his assassination. Let me first quote a relatively brief (the whole address was pretty brief, and you can read it by clicking on the link I've given you in this paragraph) section of it:

"Both (sides in the Civil War) 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. The Almighty has his own purposes. 'Woe unto the world because of offenses! for it must needs be that offenses come; but woe to that man by whom the offense cometh.'

"If we shall suppose that American slavery is one of those offenses which, in the providence of God, must needs come, but which, having continued through his appointed time, he now wills to remove, and that he gives to both North and South this terrible war, as the woe due to those by whom the offense came, shall we discern therein any departure from those divine attributes which the believers in a living God always ascribe to him?

"Fondly do we hope -- fervently do we pray -- that this mighty scourge of war may speedily pass away. Yet, if God wills that it continue until all the wealth piled by the bondsman's two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn by the lash shall be paid by another drawn with the sword, as was said three thousand years ago, so still it must be said, 'The judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether.'"

Here's Meacham on Lincoln's understanding of divine matters:

"This was the essence of Lincoln's vision: God had revealed Himself in the history of Israel, given commandments, made promises. The business of humankind was to live in history, obey those commandments and one day avail itself of those promises. Faith was rewarded -- sometimes. The kind and the generous were rewarded -- sometimes. The upright and the loving were rewarded -- sometimes. Why not all the time? We do not know. All we could know was that our duty lay in seeking to do right as we understood it and hope for the best. It was not the neatest or most satisfactory of explanations, but it had the virtue of being rooted in experience."

Meacham also quotes a letter Lincoln wrote after giving the Second Inaugural Address. "Men," Lincoln wrote (in the typical gender-exclusive language of the time), "are not flattered by being shown that there has been a difference of purpose between the Almighty and them. To deny it, however, in this case, is to deny that there is a God governing the world."

I'm not at all sure that there is much of a place in the top reaches of our American politics today for someone as theologically interesting -- and complicated and public -- as Lincoln was. Lincoln, in that time, could assume he was speaking almost exclusively to a Christian audience, though one divided by the question of whether the Bible sanctioned slavery. In our era of increased secularization and religious pluralism, no president can -- or at least should -- make such an assumption.

But instead of bemoaning that fact, I think we should recognize that it gives a president today an opportunity to point to all the common spiritual ground on which Americans today stand -- ground that draws from many religious traditions and from none. Which is not to say that Lincoln's notions of theology have been proven wanting. It's just that the world into which such theological thoughts are sent by a president these days is quite different from Lincoln's time.

Still, when I compare Lincoln's religious thinking to the pro-slavery theology that was widespread at the time of the Civil War, it makes me cautious about what we might be getting equally and embarrassingly wrong today. And it makes me all the more grateful that Abe Lincoln somehow managed to get elected president at a time when, I think, any other choice would have doomed the union.

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Although some American Christians claim they are the victims of religious persecution because people disagree with them about abortion or because store clerks say "Happy Holidays" instead of "Merry Christmas," the reality is that around the world there is actual persecution of many Christians, as this RNS story reports. In fact, it's getting worse. This Christianity Today story, for instance, offers this lead: "More than 5,600 Christians were killed for their faith last year. More than 2,100 churches were attacked or closed. More than 124,000 Christians were forcibly displaced from their homes because of their faith, and almost 15,000 became refugees." This is no small problem with an easy solution. This is brutal stuff, and the U.S. government needs to spend more time and effort pointing out the problem (including persecution of people who follow faith traditions other than Christianity) and finding solutions. Religious freedom should be a basic right for all humans. When persecution happens to followers of one religion, it happens to all.


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