Sunday, April 24, 2005

Confederate "Heritage" Month - April 24: Lincoln's religious insights

This piece by religious scholar Martin Marty on Lincoln's view of God is a serious if brief look at that dimension of Lincoln: The War-Time Lincoln and the Ironic Tradition in America (2000) by Martin Marty.

The Confederates considered Lincoln to be a monster and an abolitionist fanatic.  Marty's look at his religious beliefs shows something quite different from fanaticism.  He says:

In Lincoln’s case, I will argue, the laughing, derisive God of rulers turns into the mysterious Almighty who has his own purposes, directed to all parties and peoples. That puts under judgment “the rulers,” in this case those who lead the prosecution of the war and those who follow them, when they make extravagant claims of identification with this Almighty. At the same time they can quite possibly be treated with mercy, even as their “sides” in the war, as Lincoln calls them, are, called at the end, to treat each other with mercy.

It is often said that in what some call the "civil religion" of America, Lincoln plays the role of Christ, sacrificed for the good of the nation.  Marty considers him in this article (the text of a lecture) to be the "theologian of the American experience."

Marty suggests that there was an important shift in Lincoln's religious perspective as it applied to the workings of the divine in history:

In respect to the instances in which Lincoln himself is attractive to ironists, his career as it led to the presidency and then to war-time leadership is suggestive. These instances appear at those moments leading up to and during the earlier stages of the war when Lincoln came close to identifying the cause of preserving the Union with the cause of God. In such moments he set himself up for ironic interpretations, when outcomes of his hopes, planning, and claims did not match expectations. We are to conceive the Almighty at such times being heard as the laughing God of Psalm 2:4.

At the same time, he could turn his ironic eye on those who lost perspective entirely, particularly various earnest and pretentious churchly delegationswho were sure of God’s will and way for the Union and its armies. At such moments he reflected on the vast distance between human discernmentsor advertisements and the will of God. Lincoln then spoke of the risks of arrogating to one’s self the claims that God was on a particular side. He implied that there was danger that such claims would lead such a side to experience pathetic or tragic outcomes. Especially near his end, after many military setbacks, constant administrative frustrations, devastating personal agonies, and a prolonged war, Lincoln chose patterns of discourse that, while still using God-language, served to caution the unguarded and to protect himself from being an ironic victim.
(my emphasis)

The latter is quite a healthy perspective, then and now.  Our theocrats of today could certainly learn something from that perspective.  But not many of them will.

Marty also describes Lincoln's changing perspective in this way:

Lincoln ... took actions but interpreted them, especially in his final years, in such a way that he could not so readily suffer derision from a laughing God, or from those who might hear the voice of such a God. Four-foldly, in the course of time, Lincoln pondered the defects in the Union virtue; the weakness that led the putatively superior Northern troops to be all but vanquished on numerous occasions through the first three years of the war; the insecurity in the situation and the bare survival of the Union, even though in 1861 the majority of its citizens had felt secure as they foresaw easy victory; the foolishness in the action of several generals and other leaders, including the president himself, as he came later to acknowledge. ...

In part Lincoln was able to come to such understandings because his view of human nature, as evidenced in the nation, was realistic. He so often spoke of “erring” as a disposition of humans. Thus, “we erring mortals.” They in their causes and national life had a “worse” side, yet he was also hopeful–there were “better angels” in our nature. In other words, humans, in this case partisans in the Civil War, were called to act responsibly even if their actions could at times be vicious, weak, marked by insecurity and folly.

I'm particularly intrigued by this description of Lincoln's view of God's actions in the world:

If Lincoln was anything but a conventional life-long Calvinist believer in original sin, we have also seen that he was anything but a conventional believer in “the Almighty.” Yet as he prosecuted the war and served as Chief Executive, to advance his perspective he somehow needed “God,” but God viewed in a particular way. Over-against all those ungifted with an ironic perspective, Lincoln’s God had to have a “mysterious” will; we cannot stress that enough. If that will were patent and easy to lay bare, there would reason for God’s people on both sides in the war to be anything but virtuous, strong, secure, and wise.

Mysterious this God may be, but still the Almighty acted and humans must act in response, as through pondering and prayer. There must be some sort of semi-interpretable transaction between the Mysterious One and fallible mortals. The Union, indeed, “this nation,” must live its life somehow “under God.” And this God must have an essentially moral purpose toward the people held responsible and recognized for the validity of some aspirations–in this case to hold the Union together and, eventually, to free the slaves.

Part of what Lincoln was grappling with here is the very problematic notion that God manifests himself in human history.  The word "theodocy" isn't a commonly-used one.  But it refers to a problem that is familiar to believers, the problem of why does God allow evil and cruelty in the world.

Lincoln, by this description, wasn't willing to shift responsibility to God for the harm that human beings do, to themselves and each other.  He also seemed to see a definite two-sided interaction between God and humanity, God and the individual believer.  Marty's description suggests a dynamic picture of the exchange between humans and God that's not easily compatible with any simplistic notion of God as all-powerful or with a "Calvinist" view of God setting a predestined history for the world and everyone in it.

(See the Index to Confederate "Heritage" Month post 2005 for links to all this year's posts.)


amkpantera said...

I've heard from a couple of sources that while Lincoln did infact believe in a higher power, it was the Deistic god, much like many of the Founding Fathers.  He was reportedly heavily influenced by Thomas Paine and even went as far as to write a book on Deism, before having it destroyed by a friend who was afraid that such a book would destroy Lincoln's political career. (An atheist site, obviously, but it pays tribute to those who stand for freedom, whether a believer of a God or not, in the way of the Christian right, past and present.)

purcellneil said...

I have a lot of respect for Marty, but I think he sees Lincoln through the prism of his own beliefs.  Of course, I do so also -- unlike Marty who is a Catholic, I am a former Catholic, now atheist.  My view of Lincoln is that he was a Deist -- believed that there is a God but rejected revelation and religion.  

I see Lincoln as among those Deists whose prayers of thanks and praise for God are offered without any belief in God's intervention in the affairs of men -- although there were occasions when he attributed events to the hand of God, I think these statements were more rhetorical than theological in nature.

Lincoln may have been a mystic, or been influenced by mysticism, but he was also a believer in the power of reason.

I see Lincoln as being in synch with the very best tradition of American thought as it relates to religion, and as the epitome of that tradition.  We need to get back to that tradition, fast.