The Theological Content of the Second Inaugural Address
February 12 used to be celebrated as Abraham Lincoln's birthday, before the American thirst for three-day week-ends overcame our one-time sense of patriotic celebration. Now remembrance and study of what our nation really stands for the high principles and immoral pursuits that have brought us to where we are is set aside. A vacation is a vacation, it is not a day of remembrance. Even those with a strong sense of patriotism have little sense of history.
Among the things we have lost, is a sense of how a public official could freely speak their faith in God, without compromising the religious liberty of every fellow citizen. No president before or since has ever matched the profound theological content of Abraham Lincoln's Second Inaugural Address. Americans who seek to reclaim and highlight the undoubted role of religious faith in our history need look no further.
There are those who quote Christopher Columbus's professed devotion to God. Columbus would have been horrified by the notions of liberty and democracy. He was a faithful servant of Their Most Catholic Majesties, King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella of Spain. So too, the Mayflower Compact not only gives reverence to God, but to "our Dread Lord King James I" not exactly in the spirit of the American Revolution.
Abraham Lincoln, however, is an undeniable martyr to liberty, a democratically elected president with a firm commitment to constitutional government. Lincoln had a sound vision of what "the people" would and would not accept. He knew how to lead, and how fast to lead. When he took the oath of office for the second time, he led a nation that was clearly approaching victory over a prolonged rebellion. He had secured passage in congress of a constitutional amendment abolishing slavery, unthinkable anywhere in the union when the war began. Lincoln reached out to reunite his country by noting that those in the northern and southern states:
"Both 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."
These words did draw criticism, mostly from Democratic newspapers, precisely for its religious content. (Don't confuse this with "the liberal media" Democrats were the conservative party, the party that sought peace at almost any price, including the perpetuation of slavery, the party of states' rights, the party that voters of African descent would not support for the next eighty years, but which retained the loyalty of the "solid South" (after Deconstruction) for over 100 years.
The New York World criticized Lincoln's "substitution of religion for statesmanship." The Tribune of the same city said that the speech's stern Biblical overtones would impede any chance for peace. Lincoln himself told New York Republican organizer Thurlow Weed that his speech would not be "immediately popular. Men are not flattered by being shown that there has been a difference of purpose between the Almighty and them."
What the purposes of the Almighty might be, Lincoln deferentially addressed:
"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 bond-man's two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with 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'."
In short, Lincoln in the same words demonstrated that it is perfectly possible for a public figure in a pluralistic democratic republic to speak reverently of God, and why it is essential that the government neither establish a religion nor wrap the name of God around its own policies. Lincoln never said God is with his administration, or supports this or that policy. Lincoln said, we can see God moving through the awful events we are experiencing, and He has His own purposes, which none of us have fully grasped or shared.