Since my youth I have been fascinated with the men who held the office of President of the United States, especially those of the long past. I love history and I love attempting to place these men into the context of their times even as I wonder how they might fare leading this country during modern times.
Abraham Lincoln established himself as my personal favorite president. His wisdom, character, soundness of judgment and courage always inspired me. I have a good selection of programs and movies about him in my DVD collection and always find myself profoundly moved when watching them.
Lincoln, whose opinions on religion is controversial at best, seemed, at least according to his own words, to have been something of a fatalist. While the case has been convincingly (in my opinion at least) made that in his younger days he was a critic of organized religion in the vein of Thomas Pain, his faith commitment in his later years as president cannot be dismissed without making the man out to have been a total hypocrite. Something I would have real trouble believing.
His fatalism (arguably influenced by his early exposure to Calvinistic Baptists) somehow allowed him to view the Civil War as possibly part of the divine scheme of things, but he was determined to lead the United States to a conclusion of it and a reconciliation of the warring factions:
Neither party expected for the war the magnitude or the duration which it has already attained. Neither anticipated that the cause of the conflict might cease with or even before the conflict itself should cease. Each looked for an easier triumph, and a result less fundamental and astounding. 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. "Woe unto the world because of offenses; for it must needs be that offenses come, but woe to that man by whom the offense cometh." 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 discern therein any departure from those divine attributes which the believers in a living God always ascribe to Him? 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 until all the wealth piled by the bondsman's two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash shall be paid by another drawn with the sword, as was said three thousand years ago, so still it must be said "the judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether." (Lincoln's Second Inaugural Address, March 4, 1865.)
For many of us who are not fans of the most recent President Bush and his invasion of Iraq under the claim of divine direction, who object to politicians and world leaders who use religion this way as a pretext for warring, it might prove comforting to remember how Abraham Lincoln led during the great distress of overseeing the country through it's terrible Civil War.
From painter Francis Bicknell Carpenter's book, published in 1866, we have preserved the following example:
No nobler reply ever fell from the lips of ruler, than that uttered by President Lincoln in response to the clergyman who ventured to say, in his presence, that he hoped " the Lord was on our side."
"I am not at all concerned about that," replied Mr. Lincoln, "for I know that the Lord is always on the side of the right. But it is my constant anxiety and prayer that this nation should be on the Lord's side."
As for that terrible institution that was back of it all, the evil of human slavery, Lincoln appealed to the Golden Rule in stating his opposition: In May 1864, Lincoln replied to a letter from a Baptist delegation with the following:
When, a year or two ago, those professedly holy men of the South, met in the semblance of prayer and devotion, and, in the name of Him who said ``As ye would all men should do unto you, do ye even so unto them'' appealed to the christian world to aid them in doing to a whole race of men, as they would have no man do unto themselves, to my thinking, they condemned and insulted God and His church, far more than did Satan when he tempted the Saviour with the Kingdoms of the earth.
One thing I am well aware of is that Lincoln was a master politician. Peppering his writings and speeches with biblical references, the best known religious text of the American people, was undeniably a great method of stirring the emotions of the people. Still, back of it all, I detect a simple faith in the man that emphasized the best aspect of religion: the right should be the basis of the conduct of our lives regarding our fellow humans.