Abraham Lincoln, born on this day in 1809, is enjoying a banner year. Before January had passed, President Obama would place his own hand over the same Bible used by the sixteenth president and invoke Lincoln’s legacy to hundreds of thousands on the National Mall. In the wake of the inauguration, Lincoln’s name rolled just as effortlessly off the lips of pro-lifers gathered on the same ground to commemorate the fortieth sad anniversary of Roe v. Wade. Hollywood is on board too. With its stellar cast, Steven Spielberg’s biopic is a near lock to take home a likeness or two of King Oscar. Not bad for someone 204 years old.
Of course, Lincoln has never really gone away—there’s a reason we put him on the penny and the five dollar bill—but as the calendar flows through a string of Civil War sesquicentennial remembrances, his legacy reminds us that the quest for justice is often complicated, time-consuming, sacrificial, and always pursued by imperfect people. Yet Lincoln reminds us that imperfect people can help achieve great things if they humbly seek and submit to the will of God.
We tend to forget, as the excellent PBS mini-series “The Abolitionists” recently highlighted, that Lincoln was not an easy sell on the issue of slavery. The signing of the Emancipation Proclamation on New Year’s Day 1863 launched the prayerful Watch Night tradition in the African-American church primarily because many were unsure whether the president would keep his promise. The date was set by Lincoln’s lesser-known Preliminary Proclamation of September 22, 1862—a buffer to help soften the blow or perhaps provide a back door escape.
I and a few hundred others spent this past New Year’s Eve viewing the Emancipation Proclamation (plus the Declaration of Independence which states as “self evident” that all men are created equal) at the National Archives. As I began 2013, many were completing their own celebratory watch night just a few miles away. Gay marriage had marched across the Mason-Dixon Line, becoming legal in the Catholic-rooted territory of Maryland. Couples waiting to exercise their new “right” at the stroke of midnight likely saw the coincidence with the Emancipation Proclamation anniversary as entirely appropriate.
President Obama certainly made a similar connection, invoking our founding notions of equality and the pursuit of happiness in his Lincoln-laden Inauguration a few weeks later: “If we are truly created equal, then surely the love we commit to one another must be equal as well.”
In keeping with that sentiment, the central thesis of President Obama’s speech was this: “What makes us America is our allegiance to [the] idea . . . that all men are created equal.” I found even more interesting what the president had de-emphasized just a sentence before as he set up his punch-line: “What binds this nation together is not the colors of our skin or the tenets of our faith.”
We can perhaps say that following God has been replaced by seeking equality. What we believe in our hearts about the Creator should now be as inconsequential to our national character as the amount of melanin in our skin. The notion that “all men are created equal,” for Obama, “is the star that still guides us” and has guided us to civil rights, women’s rights, and gay rights, all expressions of “individual freedom.”
The press cheered. The Washington Post headlined the speech as “a sweeping agenda for equality” while CNN contributor Stephen Prothero dubbed it “Lincoln’s third inaugural.”
Compare it, though, to Lincoln’s second inaugural, a prayerful meditation on humanity’s struggle to understand the will of God. The oration crescendos to conclude with the Psalmist that “the judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether.” During his first term, Lincoln, a thoughtful but unorthodox believer not easily claimed by any single denomination, had come to see the purpose of God being worked out in the awful war that he had thought he was leading, and he, through the Emancipation Proclamation and other measures, had resolved to walk in step to that greater meaning.
President Obama looked back at the Civil War and primarily saw not the hand of God but the stirring of an independent Man. “We made ourselves anew,” he would say of it. Now, looking forward, Obama calls us to stand together under the national “creed” of equality.
Lincoln observed, “The Almighty has his own purposes.” Obama declared, “You and I, as citizens, have the power to set this country’s course.” And a course was set for gay rights and immigration reform and gun control. Lincoln’s God was active in ways beyond human understanding. Obama’s deity has largely gotten out of the way, leaving “the gift of freedom” to be “secured by his people here on Earth.”
Lincoln reminds us too that, in our quest to understand God, we can often mistake our own voice for that of the Almighty: Speaking of North and South he said, “Both read the same Bible and pray to the same God, and each invokes his name against the other. . . . The prayers of both could not be answered. That of neither has been answered fully.” Such a check on certainty is doubtless needed from time to time by all who claim to fight for grandiose concepts. Reflection should bring both humility and humble resolve to strive on, in Lincoln’s words, “with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right.”
John Murdock lives in Falls Church, Virginia, and works as a natural resources attorney in Washington, D.C.
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