Lessons from Lincoln

As we celebrate Presidents’ Day, we can learn much from Abraham Lincoln about how to apply Judeo-Christian values to political life. Governing our nation during its darkest days, Lincoln affirmed God’s sovereignty, sought to discover God’s will, used biblical principles to criticize American actions, called for national repentance, rejected simplistic understandings of God’s providence, and relied upon God for strength.

Lincoln frequently emphasized that God created and ruled the world and insisted that political leaders and nations were accountable to him. All people, he declared, should devoutly submit to “the Supreme Authority and just Government of Almighty God,” who reigned over “all the affairs of men and of nations.” Lincoln urged Americans to “recognize the sublime truth, announced in the Holy Scriptures and proven by all history that those nations only are blessed whose God is the Lord.” Because God was Lord of all life, he maintained, institutions as well as individuals were responsible to him. People were required to confess their sins “as a nation and as individuals” and obey his norms.

Lincoln continually insisted that Americans were required to obey God’s standards and were subject to his judgment. Lincoln persistently refused to identify the aims of the United States with God’s will. During the Civil War, a minister expressed his hope that “the Lord was on our side.” The president countered that his constant concern and prayer instead was “that I and this Nation should be on the Lord’s side.” Mark Hatfield, a longtime senator from Oregon, argued that Lincoln never implored “God to give victory to the North.” Instead, he urged citizens to confess their sins and seek God’s wisdom. He did not try “to sanctify a nation, society, party, system of government, or economics.”

Lincoln, like other American presidents, employed a priestly civil religion to offer God’s comfort and solace to people in the midst of tragedy and affliction. More than other presidents, however, he used a prophetic civil religion to challenge citizens’ attitudes and actions. He frequently emphasized God’s transcendence and judgment and urged Americans to forsake selfishness, forgive others, make sacrifices for the nation, and accept responsibility for their actions.

Although he believed that God wanted to use the United States to spread democracy to the world, unlike many other presidents, Lincoln was ambivalent about whether America had a unique relationship with God. He called the United States a “favored land” and referred to its residents as God’s “almost chosen people,” but Lincoln condemned many of its practices and warned that America’s transgressions were thwarting its ability to accomplish God’s purposes. Because Americans fell far short of the noble ideals they professed, he argued, they were suffering God’s righteous judgment. To Lincoln, the Civil War was clearly “a divine punishment for the sin of slavery” in which both Northerners and Southerners participated.

Lincoln repeatedly called on Americans to repent of their sins and submit to God’s judgment. Following the Union’s disastrous defeat at Bull Run in July 1861, he urged citizens to “confess and deplore their sins,” admit their “faults and crimes as a nation and as individuals,” ask God for mercy, and humbly accept his reprimands. The Bible taught, Lincoln asserted, that “nations like individuals are subjected to punishments and chastisements in this world.” In proclaiming a National Fast Day in 1863, he declared, “may we not justly fear that the awful calamity of civil war … may be but a punishment, inflicted on us, for our presumptuous sins” to reform the American people? Americans had received “the choicest bounties of Heaven,” but, Lincoln lamented, “we have forgotten God” and “vainly imagined … that all these blessings were produced by some superior wisdom and virtue of our own.” If citizens truly repented, then God would pardon their national sins and restore unity and peace to their “divided and suffering Country.”

Lincoln stressed that the government must safeguard citizens’ liberties, which were “given to mankind directly by the Maker.” The prairie politician argued that the American political system had best protected civil and religious liberty, and he labeled ensuring these liberties “the noblest” of causes. “All good people could agree,” Lincoln averred, that it was imperative to implore “the gracious favor of the God of Nations” in the struggle to preserve the “precious birthright of civil and religious liberty.”

Finally, Lincoln insisted that the nation’s deepest problems did not have political solutions. He argued, for example, that slavery “must be settled on some philosophical basis” that could be sustained by public opinion. As a young legislator, Lincoln fought for issues he believed were just, no matter how great the opposition. “The probability that we may fall … ought not to deter us from the support of a cause we believe to be just,” he announced; “it shall not deter me.” At the same time, however, Lincoln was a practical politician who valued prudence and realism and differed sharply from the “utopians, perfectionists, moralizers, fanatics and absolutists” of his day. Through moral reasoning, debate, and compromise, Lincoln strove to reconcile “what was morally desirable with what was politically possible.”

In our heated, lively, and often contentious debate over how religion and politics relate in the United States today, Lincoln has much to teach us.