I am at the end of a course entitled “The Long Revolution” that looks at the ways the legacy of the American Revolution was challenged and changed over time. The concluding week or so looks at a collection of essays edited by Eric Foner called Our Lincoln. The contributors include quite a cast, from James McPherson and Foner to Mark Neely and Andrew Delbanco. You can see lectures from the crew at C-SPAN.
Delbanco contributed an essay on Lincoln’s “sacramental language” that my students and I found interesting, in part because Delbanco argued that Lincoln’s language is a bridge to pragmatists of later periods. John Diggins had made a similar point as had, I think, William James. For my own purposes, I found Delbanco’s view useful as a way to suggest that Lincoln illustrated how a president could both construct an American civil religion and question the ideological uses of civil religion. In Lincoln’s case, he created meaning for a war that swung between terrible despair and righteous flights of meaning without claiming the war stood outside of history.
To make this point I offer a reading of a particular question Lincoln poses in the most sacramental of all of his addresses, the second inaugural. I would like to try that argument out here.
My argument is based in part on historian Mark Noll’s contention that prior to the Civil War, Americans had developed a dangerous confidence in their ability to understand history. In his excellent book,The Civil War as a Theological Crisis he writes that in the years leading up to the Civil War, a grand alliance between the bible and the Enlightenment encouraged Americans to believe that “they could see clearly what the world was like, what God was like, what factors drove the world, who was responsible for events, and how the moral balance sheet should be read. They were children of the Enlightenment as well as children of God.” Such confidence imparted by the nation’s unique intellectual consensus contained a dangerous hubris for “it also imparted a nearly fanatical force to the prosecution of war.” We know the results of that fanaticism—mass violence and death on a scale never equaled on American soil.
The theological crisis Noll identifies in his book was not over competing views of God, but rather “a story of how a deeply entrenched intellectual synthesis divided against itself, even as its proponents were reassuring combatants on either side that each enjoyed a unique standing before God and each exercised a unique role as the true bearer of the nation’s Christian civilization.”
No other person grappled with this American paradox better than Lincoln. And Lincoln did so because he was intimately familiar with the confidence that led to dangerous delusions about reason and God. Lincoln was a devout rationalist for most of his life, yet, later in his life, also acquired a significant belief in Providence. Lincoln the rationalist had to come to terms with whether the Civil War was a transcendent experience. There was no making sense of a nation with so much promise nearly committing suicide.
But it was also Lincoln’s particular kind of faith in God that prevented him from accepting the war as some kind of blood sacrifice to a God sitting in judgment. As Lincoln reasoned in his “Meditation on the Divine Will,” “The will of God prevails,” but nobody could know what that will was, after all “God cannot be for and against the same thing at the same time.”
In his Second Inaugural, I think Lincoln went a step further, pointing out not merely the obvious blasphemy of claiming God’s grace in war, but the irony of a nation that seems ideologically designed to do so.
At the end of the longest, most deliberative passage in his Second Inaugural, Lincoln ruminates, yet again, about the will of God. He says:
“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,” Lincoln asked, “discern therein any departure from those divine attributes which the believers in a living God always ascribe to Him?”
“Shall we discern therein any departure from those divine attributes which the believers in a living God always ascribe to Him?”
It seems to me that the implications of that final question were almost as apocalyptic for the promise of America as the war itself. Did not Lincoln ask if the Civil War had undermined the belief that God had any active interest in the United States? Indeed, knowing that the mixing of religion and politics were not incidental to the prosecution and interpretation of the war, Lincoln wanted to know if the horror of the war had deflated American confidence in the grand synthesis of reason and faith.
I know we often focus on Lincoln’s sentiment that both sides prayed to same God and then both were judged and condemned by that same God. In that notion, Lincoln is said to portray a providence that Americans could not fully know but would clearly feel. Yet, it seems to me that the question I pull from this same address illustrates Lincoln profound skepticism that an objective or normative civil religion might exist–or better, that such a civil religion should ever be believed. And for this reason, Lincoln is not merely condemning the hubris of pre-war American faith but breaking the bond between providence and American history that had led to the popular confidence in a biblically based moral order.