Civility Has Its Limits: Re-Reading Lincoln’s Second Inaugural

Lincoln GOP

I have been teaching Abraham Lincoln’s Second Inaugural the address for years, both in my U.S. History Survey class and my Civil War class.  I even developed a sermon on the address which I sometimes use in churches or when I am asked to speak in college chapels. A few years ago I delivered that sermon in the chapel at Messiah College.

When I teach this document I often focus on Lincoln’s call for national unity.  While many Northern ministers and theologians wanted to punish the South for seceding from the Union, Lincoln recommended caution. “The Almighty has his own purposes,” he said. He warned both northern Christian leaders and his fellow Republicans to be careful about invoking God’s wrath against the South.  Lincoln encouraged the North to “judge not, that we be not judged.”  He recommended “malice toward none” and “charity for all.”  Lincoln urged the country to “bind up the nation’s wounds” in order to achieve a “lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations.”

I have always taught the Second Inaugural Address as an anecdote to the culture wars.  I still teach it this way.

But when I re-read Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address this morning, in the context of our current national moment, I was struck by the fact that Lincoln’s plea for civility, healing, and unity comes after the Civil War.  Lincoln is calling Americans to rally around a particular kind of nation–a nation in which slavery will be no more, a nation purged of its immorality (at least on this issue), and a nation secured by the Union victory in the war.

Lincoln clearly blames the Civil War on the South.  He reminds us that “insurgent agents” were seeking to “destroy” and “dissolve” the Union.  The South preferred to “make war” rather than “let the nation survive.” The Confederacy wanted to extend slavery, even if it meant it would “rend the Union.”  Both sides read the same Bible and prayed to the same God, but “the prayers of both could not be answered.”

Slavery, Lincoln came to believe, was a cancer on the nation.  It needed to be removed.  As the war went on, Lincoln was far from civil in his approach to dealing with this national sin.  Lincoln did not appeal to the mystery of God’s will when he ordered his generals to kill Lee’s army.  (Only U.S. Grant seemed to get the message).  As he listened to the sound of the abolitionists in his ear,  Lincoln’s envisioned a new birth of American freedom.  This vision for national unity would take place on his terms.  There was no moral equivalency.  The North was right.  The South was wrong.  The North would win the war.  The South would lose.  The South’s immoral vision of American life had been defeated.  Now, and only now, was the time to think about how moral and theological questions about judgement, malice, and charity might be applied and practiced in our national life.

As we think about Lincoln’s famous address in our current moment, perhaps it teaches us that civility has its limits.  War, of course, is never the answer, but it is also hard to reconcile with immorality.

What do you think?

ADDENDUM (January 29, 2020 at 12:30pm):

Historian Wendy Wong Schirmer offers this very thoughtful response:

A quick search for the word “civility” reveals that it comes from civis– citizen– which is also related to civilis and civitas, namely pertaining to the city and public life. We tend to take “civility” to mean politeness. Affability. But it would seem to me that civility, given its etymology, has another dimension and a specific purpose, one that can’t be detached from citizenship duties, and the well being of the city (and I mean “city” more in classical terms here– usually the city state).

I’m contemplating these things at the moment because I am teaching both Plato’s Republic and Frederick Douglass’s exhortation to remember the Civil War in two different courses this semester. I thoroughly own that a lot of these thoughts have yet to crystallize into something clearer, and so I apologize for any muddle-headedness and banality that results. The other day, it stuck me while reading the Republic that Plato discusses not only how governments– and individuals– corrupt and disintegrate, but if I remember off the top of my head, Socrates makes a passing comment about a city ceasing to be a city. For the purpose of our discussion, it would mean the point where civility will have truly broken down. It certainly did during the Civil War. For somebody like Plato, civility isn’t reconcilable with immorality; the entire city would ultimately break down. This is not to say that we should use the classics as some excuse for legal draconianism, but there’s something to be said for that observation. It at least provides food for thought. For what it’s worth, Plato writes in the aftermath of the fall of Athenian democracy and the death of his mentor Socrates.

It therefore doesn’t surprise me that Lincoln is far from “civil” (at least if we’re thinking about civility as being polite) on slavery. And Douglass too. Their arguments suggest that the South was uncivil first by rending the nation for the sake of preserving slavery. You also can’t rebuild the nation and bind up its wounds– and therefore the “city,” citizenship, and civility– while appealing to moral equivalency on this issue. I notice that so many people like to use Douglass to talk about “malice toward none,” but seem to miss his emphasis on liberty and justice. That happened the last time I posted a letter from Douglass to his former master written before the Civil War– a letter that not only contained the words “I am your fellow man and not your slave,” but a whole discussion of natural rights and where they come from, as well as a call to conversion aimed at the entire country. To heal in the aftermath of the Civil War doesn’t simply require prudence and generosity. It requires justice and truth also.

Court Evangelical Franklin Graham Weighs-In on Impeachment

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Here you go:

It always amazes me how these court evangelicals use prayer as a political tool. If we want to play Graham’s game we could also say that the Democrats need our prayers because they continue to face an “onslaught of lies, slander, and innuendos” from the President of the United States.  And we could add: “It’s just shameful” what the President of the United States “is putting this country through.”

Franklin is correct when he says that this nation “needs our prayers,” but I doubt God wants to hear his partisan petitions.  As Lincoln said in his Second Inaugural Address: “The Almighty has His own purposes.”

Reading Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address on the Day the House Judiciary Passes Articles of Impeachment

Lincoln GOP

Yesterday I wrote briefly about ending my Alexander Hamilton course on the day the House Judiciary Committee passed articles of impeachment for only the fourth time in United States history.

After I ended class by playing “Who Lives, Who Dies, Who Tells Your Story,” I walked down the stairs in Frey Hall at Messiah College to teach the last day of my U.S. History to 1865 survey course.  I had no idea that we would be reading and discussing Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address on this historic day, but it seemed fitting.

SATURDAY, MARCH 4, 1865

Fellow-Countrymen, at this second appearing to take the oath of the Presidential office there is less occasion for an extended address than there was at the first. Then a statement somewhat in detail of a course to be pursued seemed fitting and proper. Now, at the expiration of four years, during which public declarations have been constantly called forth on every point and phase of the great contest which still absorbs the attention and engrosses the energies of the nation, little that is new could be presented. The progress of our arms, upon which all else chiefly depends, is as well known to the public as to myself, and it is, I trust, reasonably satisfactory and encouraging to all. With high hope for the future, no prediction in regard to it is ventured.

On the occasion corresponding to this four years ago all thoughts were anxiously directed to an impending civil war. All dreaded it, all sought to avert it. While theinaugural addresswas being delivered from this place, devoted altogether to saving the Union without war, insurgent agents were in the city seeking to destroy it without war–seeking to dissolve the Union and divide effects by negotiation. Both parties deprecated war, but one of them would make war rather than let the nation survive, and the other would accept war rather than let it perish, and the war came.

One-eighth of the whole population were colored slaves, not distributed generally over the Union, but localized in the southern part of it. These slaves constituted a peculiar and powerful interest. All knew that this interest was somehow the cause of the war. To strengthen, perpetuate, and extend this interest was the object for which the insurgents would rend the Union even by war, while the Government claimed no right to do more than to restrict the territorial enlargement of it. Neither party expected for the war the magnitude or the duration which it has already attained. Neither anticipated that the cause of the conflict might cease with or even before the conflict itself should cease. Each looked for an easier triumph, and a result less fundamental and astounding. 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. “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 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.

“With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation’s wounds, to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan, to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations.

Court Evangelical Jeffress Defends “Make America Great Again” Song

I actually thought the “Make America Great Again” song was pretty catchy.  (It starts at about the 34:00 mark in the video below):

I was, however, surprised at the way Robert Jeffress, the pastor First Baptist Church–Dallas, defended the song against critics who thought it was inappropriate for a church choir.

In a recent interview at The Christian Post, Jeffress said:

There is no difference in singing “Make America Great Again” than there is in singing any other patriotic song, like the “Star Spangled Banner.” This song was sung at a patriotic rally at a concert hall on Saturday night, not sung in a church as a worship song on Sunday morning.

Fair enough.  I was willing to give Jeffress a pass here.  But then he says that the song is okay because it was “not sung in a church as a worship song on Sunday morning.” Oh boy.  By this logic,  how does Jeffress explain what happened at First Baptist–Dallas on Sunday, June 25, 2017?

Patheos blogger Jonathan Aigner recently wrote about the “Make America Great Song”:

It’s not only their candidate’s campaign slogan, it’s now a part of their gospel…It’s their mantra, their creed, their prayer, and they shout it out with nationalistic fervor. Pledging allegiance to God and to America in the same breath, melding together the Kingdom of God and self, they pray a blasphemous prayer to a red, white, and blue Jesus.”

Frankly, it is hard to see this any other way when the song is interpreted (like any historian would interpret it) in the context of the June 25, 2017 “Freedom Sunday” service and Jeffress’s remarks of introduction for Trump after the song was performed last Saturday night.

The Jeffress interview does not stop there.  He describes his evangelical critics as “gnats”:

They are absolutely nothing but evangelical gnats who are looking for any excuse to nibble at the president. What we do have in President Trump is the president who has done the most to protect religious liberty of any president in America…If you take these critics’ argument to their logical end, then Christians need to quit saying the Pledge of Allegiance.

Actually, some Christians do think that they need to quit saying the Pledge of Allegiance. I am not one of them, but I fully understand why some of my fellow Christians might find this problematic.

And then Jeffress continues:

These evangelical Never Trumpers are incensed because President Trump’s election demonstrated how irrelevant they are to Christians. Christians did not listen to these Never Trumpers, in spite of all their blogs and all of their tweets about President Trump,” Jeffress said. “If anybody listened objectively to what President Trump said Saturday night, it was the most god-honoring, faith-affirming speech I have ever heard any president give at any time in history.

“At any time in history?”  I can think of at least five (and probably more) Obama speeches that were more “faith-affirming” than what Trump said last Saturday night.  But let’s go back even further.  How about Lincoln’s Second Inaugural for starters?

Jeffress is probably correct when he says that Trump’s election demonstrated the irrelevance of the evangelical “Never Trumpers.” What scares me here Jeffress’s attempt to equate the “relevance” or popularity of a particular political view with whether or not such a view is correct or moral.  Do we really want to go there?  Anyone who knows anything about American history will understand what I mean when I ask this question.

Apparently Jeffress’s new moral standard is 81%.

I remain a faithful #19percenter.

Fellow Historians of Lincoln and Reconstruction: Cut Hillary Some Slack

72118-last_lincolnApparently several historians and journalists are upset by Hillary Clinton’s remarks about Abraham Lincoln and the Civil War at last night’s CNN’s Democratic candidate’s town hall meeting.  Here is what she said about Lincoln in response to an audience member who asked her to say something about the POTUS who has inspired her the most:

You know, I – wow, when I think about his challenges, they paled in comparison to anything we have faced or can imagine.  You know, more Americans died in the Civil War than, you know, the wars of the 20th Century put together.

So here was a man who was a real politician.  I mean, he was a great statesman, but he also understood politics.  And he had to work to put together, you know, the support he needed to be able to hold the country together during the war.

And while he was prosecuting that war to keep the Union together, he was building America, which I found just an astonishing part of his legacy.  The transcontinental rail system, land grant colleges, he was thinking about the future while in the middle of trying to decide which general he can trust to try to finish the war.

That’s what I mean, when you’ve got to do a lot of things at once, what could be more overwhelming than trying to wage and win a civil war?

And yet, he kept his eye on the future and he also tried to keep summoning up the better angels of our nature.  You know, he was willing to reconcile and forgive.  And I don’t know what our country might have been like had he not been murdered, but I bet that it might have been a little less rancorous, a little more forgiving and tolerant, that might possibly have brought people back together more quickly.

But instead, you know, we had Reconstruction, we had the re-instigation of segregation and Jim Crow.  We had people in the South feeling totally discouraged and defiant.  So, I really do believe he could have very well put us on a different path.

And, as I say, our challenges are nothing like what he faced, but let’s think ourselves about not only what we have to do right now, especially to get the income rising in America, especially to make college affordable, do something about student debt, keep health care growing until we get 100 percent coverage and so much else.

But let’s also think about how we do try to summon up those better angels, and to treat each other, even when we disagree, fundamentally disagree, treat each other with more respect, and agree to disagree more civilly, and try to be inspired by, I think, the greatest of our presidents.

I have highlighted the section of her remarks that led some pundits to squeal.

Luke Brinker of Policy Mic has gathered some of the tweets written in response to Hillary’s remarks about Reconstruction and Jim Crow.  Here are a few of them:

Frankly, I was quite impressed with Hillary’s understanding of Lincoln.  She understood the challenges that he faced as POTUS during a Civil War.  She knew that his presidency was not just about the Civil War.  Her references to the railroads and land-grant colleges were excellent.  She was aware of his problems with Union generals.  Her references to reconciliation and forgiveness captured the spirit of the Second Inaugural.  How many presidential candidates could summon this kind of historical knowledge off the top of their heads?

Of course she did imply that Reconstruction was a problem.  People like Chait and Bouie are correct to note that Radical Reconstruction in the South had positive results for the former slaves.  If Hillary was referring to the policies of Republican Reconstruction, then she was wrong to imply that it had negative consequences for Blacks.

On the other hand, she could have been simply referencing the “Era of Reconstruction,” a period that covers the entire period in U.S. History from 1865-1877.  This is normally how American History textbooks cover the period.  This “era” saw Republican policies that brought human and civil rights to those who were enslaved.  You had the 13th, 14th, and 15th amendments.  But this era ended tragically for African American as white redemption won the day, leading to Jim Crow and segregation.  From a curriculum standpoint, all of this–the good and the bad–are covered under the so-called “Era of Reconstruction.”

Did Hillary make a mistake by lumping Republican Reconstruction with Jim Crow and segregation?  Probably. But I don’t think it was enough to merit the outrage I am seeing among historians and the references to Hillary invoking the Dunning School.

If liberal commentators want to find the real problem with Hillary’s statement they should consider the fact that if Lincoln had lived the union might have come together much sooner, but I am not sure  we would have had a period of Reconstruction that benefited former slaves in the way that it did.  Lincoln’s so-called “Ten percent plan” made it pretty easy for the South to return to the Union without addressing the plight of the former slaves.

 

Barack Obama’s Amazing Prayer Breakfast Speech

At the risk of once again getting in trouble for my commentary on what Barack Obama said at a National Prayer Breakfast, let me say a few things about what Barack Obama said about religion and violence at last week’s National Prayer Breakfast.

Here is the pertinent part of the speech:

Now, over the last few months, we’ve seen a number of challenges — certainly over the last six years.  But part of what I want to touch on today is the degree to which we’ve seen professions of faith used both as an instrument of great good, but also twisted and misused in the name of evil. 
As we speak, around the world, we see faith inspiring people to lift up one another — to feed the hungry and care for the poor, and comfort the afflicted and make peace where there is strife.  We heard the good work that Sister has done in Philadelphia, and the incredible work that Dr. Brantly and his colleagues have done.  We see faith driving us to do right.
But we also see faith being twisted and distorted, used as a wedge — or, worse, sometimes used as a weapon.  From a school in Pakistan to the streets of Paris, we have seen violence and terror perpetrated by those who profess to stand up for faith, their faith, professed to stand up for Islam, but, in fact, are betraying it.  We see ISIL, a brutal, vicious death cult that, in the name of religion, carries out unspeakable acts of barbarism  — terrorizing religious minorities like the Yezidis, subjecting women to rape as a weapon of war, and claiming the mantle of religious authority for such actions. 
We see sectarian war in Syria, the murder of Muslims and Christians in Nigeria, religious war in the Central African Republic, a rising tide of anti-Semitism and hate crimes in Europe, so often perpetrated in the name of religion.
So how do we, as people of faith, reconcile these realities — the profound good, the strength, the tenacity, the compassion and love that can flow from all of our faiths, operating alongside those who seek to hijack religious for their own murderous ends? 
Humanity has been grappling with these questions throughout human history.  And lest we get on our high horse and think this is unique to some other place, remember that during the Crusades and the Inquisition, people committed terrible deeds in the name of Christ.  In our home country, slavery and Jim Crow all too often was justified in the name of Christ.  Michelle and I returned from India — an incredible, beautiful country, full of magnificent diversity — but a place where, in past years, religious faiths of all types have, on occasion, been targeted by other peoples of faith, simply due to their heritage and their beliefs — acts of intolerance that would have shocked Gandhiji, the person who helped to liberate that nation. 
So this is not unique to one group or one religion.  There is a tendency in us, a sinful tendency that can pervert and distort our faith.  In today’s world, when hate groups have their own Twitter accounts and bigotry can fester in hidden places in cyberspace, it can be even harder to counteract such intolerance. But God compels us to try.  And in this mission, I believe there are a few principles that can guide us, particularly those of us who profess to believe. 
And, first, we should start with some basic humility.  I believe that the starting point of faith is some doubt — not being so full of yourself and so confident that you are right and that God speaks only to us, and doesn’t speak to others, that God only cares about us and doesn’t care about others, that somehow we alone are in possession of the truth. 
Our job is not to ask that God respond to our notion of truth — our job is to be true to Him, His word, and His commandments.  And we should assume humbly that we’re confused and don’t always know what we’re doing and we’re staggering and stumbling towards Him, and have some humility in that process.  And that means we have to speak up against those who would misuse His name to justify oppression, or violence, or hatred with that fierce certainty.  No God condones terror.  No grievance justifies the taking of innocent lives, or the oppression of those who are weaker or fewer in number.
And so, as people of faith, we are summoned to push back against those who try to distort our religion — any religion — for their own nihilistic ends.  And here at home and around the world, we will constantly reaffirm that fundamental freedom — freedom of religion — the right to practice our faith how we choose, to change our faith if we choose, to practice no faith at all if we choose, and to do so free of persecution and fear and discrimination.
There’s wisdom in our founders writing in those documents that help found this nation the notion of freedom of religion, because they understood the need for humility.  They also understood the need to uphold freedom of speech, that there was a connection between freedom of speech and freedom of religion.  For to infringe on one right under the pretext of protecting another is a betrayal of both. 
But part of humility is also recognizing in modern, complicated, diverse societies, the functioning of these rights, the concern for the protection of these rights calls for each of us to exercise civility and restraint and judgment.  And if, in fact, we defend the legal right of a person to insult another’s religion, we’re equally obligated to use our free speech to condemn such insults — (applause) — and stand shoulder-to-shoulder with religious communities, particularly religious minorities who are the targets of such attacks.  Just because you have the right to say something doesn’t mean the rest of us shouldn’t question those who would insult others in the name of free speech.  Because we know that our nations are stronger when people of all faiths feel that they are welcome, that they, too, are full and equal members of our countries.
So humility I think is needed.  And the second thing we need is to uphold the distinction between our faith and our governments.  Between church and between state.  The United States is one of the most religious countries in the world — far more religious than most Western developed countries.  And one of the reasons is that our founders wisely embraced the separation of church and state.  Our government does not sponsor a religion, nor does it pressure anyone to practice a particular faith, or any faith at all.  And the result is a culture where people of all backgrounds and beliefs can freely and proudly worship, without fear, or coercion — so that when you listen to Darrell talk about his faith journey you know it’s real.  You know he’s not saying it because it helps him advance, or because somebody told him to.  It’s from the heart… 
That’s not the case in theocracies that restrict people’s choice of faith.  It’s not the case in authoritarian governments that elevate an individual leader or a political party above the people, or in some cases, above the concept of God Himself.  So the freedom of religion is a value we will continue to protect here at home and stand up for around the world, and is one that we guard vigilantly here in the United States.
Humility; a suspicion of government getting between us and our faiths, or trying to dictate our faiths, or elevate one faith over another.  And, finally, let’s remember that if there is one law that we can all be most certain of that seems to bind people of all faiths, and people who are still finding their way towards faith but have a sense of ethics and morality in them — that one law, that Golden Rule that we should treat one another as we wish to be treated.  The Torah says “Love thy neighbor as yourself.”  In Islam, there is a Hadith that states: “None of you truly believes until he loves for his brother what he loves for himself.”  The Holy Bible tells us to “put on love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony.”  Put on love.
Whatever our beliefs, whatever our traditions, we must seek to be instruments of peace, and bringing light where there is darkness, and sowing love where there is hatred.  And this is the loving message of His Holiness, Pope Francis.  And like so many people around the world, I’ve been touched by his call to relieve suffering, and to show justice and mercy and compassion to the most vulnerable; to walk with The Lord and ask “Who am I to judge?”  He challenges us to press on in what he calls our “march of living hope.”  And like millions of Americans, I am very much looking forward to welcoming Pope Francis to the United States later this year.  (Applause.)…
Each of us has a role in fulfilling our common, greater purpose — not merely to seek high position, but to plumb greater depths so that we may find the strength to love more fully.  And this is perhaps our greatest challenge — to see our own reflection in each other; to be our brother’s keepers and sister’s keepers, and to keep faith with one another.  As children of God, let’s make that our work, together
This is a great speech.  A moving speech.  A Christian speech. An American speech.  Obama’s statements about the relationship between religion, violence, slavery and racism are historically accurate.  His remarks about how history reminds us of our sinful condition should please any evangelical Calvinist.  I don’t think that there has been such an appeal to humility and mystery by a President of the United States since Abraham Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address.  Obama’s defense of religious freedom reminds me of my earlier post today on Russell Moore’s defense of religious liberty.

Is radical Islam a threat? Of course. Must it be stopped?  Yes. Does Obama want to stop it?  I believe he does. When he tells Americans to get off their “high horses” and realize that sin has been present throughout human history, even American history, he reminds me a lot of Lincoln.  When Lincoln delivered his Second Inaugural he knew that the Confederates had killed tens of thousands of Union men and women over the course of his first term as president.  Lincoln wanted the Confederacy punished for their crimes, but he also urged Americans to have “malice toward none” and “charity for all.”  

Lincoln turned to American history to remind his Northern listeners that both North and South were responsible for “the bondsman’s 250 years of unrequited toil.”  He wanted the people of the North to recall their past sins before they began to cast judgment on the South.  It seems that Obama, by reminding Americans about the Crusades and slavery in his Prayer Breakfast remarks, was doing something similar.