Well, Presidents Day is upon us and those so inclined might take a moment to look back at the presidents that the holiday is meant to commemorate. We might ask if there isn't some wisdom or instructive example in the history we could bring to bear on the current day.
My thoughts turn to Lincoln.
We've had some conversation —or at least some contentiousness— going on about matters of religious faith in our politics as of late. Some seek political traction in framing public policy debate as the proxy of some war upon religion immediately at hand, and of some larger longer cosmic contest as well. Without the slightest sense of irony, the President is accused by some of being a 'secret Muslim" and running a "secular Socialist machine" at the very same time. Just this past week Rick Santorum, a leading contender in the GOP field of prospective presidential candidates, was quoted characterizing President Obama's policies as based in "some phony theology —oh, not a theology based on the Bible— a different theology." Santorum had previously opined "America as we know it will cease to exist" unless we can remove the current occupant from the White House. He offers himself in service at this hour of our existential crisis.
As troubling as some might find such apocalyptic comments, what I find almost as troubling is the reaction these culture war callings manage to elicit from warriors of the opposing number. We are told that candidates like Santorum do indeed speak for the religious in this country —for Catholics and Evangelicals— and that these are by definition narrow thinking bigoted folk —best to be defeated in an election contest, rather than reasoned with in any considered and constructive debate.
I find that answer every bit as disturbing as the insult it responds to.
What with these theological themes astir in the current debate, and on a Presidents Day weekend, I couldn't help but be reminded of Abraham Lincoln's Second Inaugural address. Lincoln gave the speech just a month before the Civil War —and his own life— came to an end. That March day in 1865 it seemed all but certain that the war would conclude with the Union preserved. Yet Lincoln's tone wasn't a triumphal one. He looked to the future with hope, but also across the past with grief. He saw the war as something chosen by those who had wished to dissolve the Union and those who had wanted to preserve it, both. He saw the pain of it borne by both and he recognized that...
"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."
Believing in the Union as he did, Lincoln was positing that one side wasn't about to defeat or win out over the other. Rather, for the public he addressed that day, he framed the terrible war all but behind them as God's judgement upon the both sides, upon the lot of us.
"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," he said, it would continue "...so still it must be said 'the judgments of the Lord, are true and righteous altogether.'"
Some might see this rhetoric as a clever construction by a challenged political leader —one who had won himself an election and another term, one who had led a successful war effort to preserve the Union, but who still faced enormous challenge. On some level I am sure that is true. But on another level this language appeals to a wisdom beyond the practical realities of political conflict or even civil war. There is a profound humility and insight being expressed, a realization that neither side could claim God's endorsement in the campaign. And each must humbly accept the judgement.
"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..."
Maybe the work never is truly "finished" —but still not bad advice, I'd say.