The Wisdom of Abraham Lincoln

John ArmstrongAmerica and Americanism

Abraham-lincoln-200 President Abraham Lincoln came to understand the unusual nexus that exists between faith and civil society during his time as our 16th president. During his presidency, with the nation at war, Lincoln heard arguments from both sides that God was in support of the North or the South. He struck an entirely different note when he wrote a private document titled: “Meditation on the Divine Will." This amazing statement is well worth quoting in its entirety.

The will of God prevails. In great contests each party claims to act in accordance with the will of God. Both may be, and one must be wrong. God can not be for, and against the same thing at the same time. In the present civil war it is quite possible that God’s purpose is something different from the purpose of either party—and yet the human instrumentalities, working just as they do, are of the best adaptation to effect His purpose. I am almost ready to say this is probably true—that God wills this contest, and wills that it shall not end yet. By his mere quiet power, on the minds of the now contestants, He could have either saved or destroyed the Union without a human contest. Yet the contest began. And having begun He could give the final victory to either side any day. Yet the contests proceeds.

This type of thinking found its way into Lincoln’s second inaugural address in 1865, almost two-and-a-half years after he wrote the statement. Lincoln reveals a deep hesitancy to represent God’s purposes. He rejects a confident reading of events that typically characterizes the American jeremiad, a course he himself seems to have followed in the Emancipation Proclamation by linking this document with the battle at Antietam.

For Abraham Lincoln, our greatest president, God’s purposes could not be reduced to partisan debates about politics. In the second inaugural Lincoln said: “The Almighty has his own purposes.” (What a wise approach! He acknowledged God's sovereignty but refused to see God as on the side of his political views and purposes.)

Evangelical historian Mark Noll has brilliantly noted that Lincoln “propounds a thick, complex view of God’s rule over the world and a morally nuanced picture of America’s destiny” (Cited by Murphy, 74). I believe we have missed the brilliance of Lincoln’s insights and promoted a particularly troubling brand of civil religion. This civil religion was used by Barack Obama to promote his view of America in the last election, the first Democrat to use this in a generation. It has been used much more prominently by the Republicans since the time of Lyndon Johnson. By not embracing Lincoln’s highly nuanced view our loss as Christians is immense. We have been taken in by the Republican party in many instances, just as Notherners were in the Civil War. We have also been taken in by the Democratic Party, much as Southerners were in the same Civil War. The parties have exchanged roles since the 19th century, at least in some ways, but the problem remains. We want to have a divine mascot on our side thus we link the Bible and God to our cause and beliefs in public.

I am currently writing a series on this issue; i.e., the role of civil religion in American life, its impact on the church and our view of the kingdom of God. I am considering how the use of the jeremiad is employed to seek a better American past while we call the country to repentance and national renewal. I have felt that this wrong use of history is at the root of American civil religion for more than 35 years. I still do. I find that it consistently takes Christians away from the real mission of Christ and his kingdom.

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