Providential Wisdom

I don’t believe (or much like) the phrase, common grace, but sometimes the insights of the heterodox and even the unbeliever make you wonder about the effects of special grace. Consider Noah Millman’s invocation of Abraham Lincoln for the current pissing match over Confederate Monuments (and oh by the way not all Christians are not using the Port-a-Potties). First Millman credits Lincoln with recommending “charity for all”:

North and South were compacted together within the Union, and both prospered by that union. So both North and South bore the moral stain of slavery, notwithstanding that the slaves themselves were overwhelmingly concentrated in the Southern states, and the social and economic structure of the South changed most by emancipation.

This perspective was what made it possible for Lincoln, in the midst of war, to speak of achieving a just and lasting peace “with malice toward none, with charity for all.” It is easy to argue that such a lasting peace would require honoring the honest—if, in Lincoln’s view, badly mistaken—conviction of men like Robert E. Lee that their actions were not rebellion but a defense of their country. Indeed, it is hard to see what “charity for all” could mean if it did not extend to a man of Lee’s widely-touted honor and integrity, or those who cherish his memory. Reconciliation could be achieved between North and South on the basis that while the political matter of secession was settled on the battlefield, there was honor on all sides. Those were precisely the terms that prevailed from the end of Reconstruction through the era of the Civil Rights movement.

Of course, reconciliation is not easy (and doesn’t come by way of statements and letters):

Reconciliation in the present means reconciliation of conflicting narratives of the past, finding a place for all of our varied common ancestors. But the axes of conflict between those ancestors may, themselves, be irreconcilable.

We may fool ourselves to think that matters are simpler elsewhere. Attila may be honored in Hungary without upsetting the descendants of the cities he sacked; Bohdan Khmelnytsky may be honored as the father of the Ukrainian nation notwithstanding that his men perpetrated the most horrific massacres of Jews between the Crusades and the Holocaust. But the illusion of integral simplicity is as deliberate as it is false, as the currently bloodletting in Ukraine and the escalating authoritarianism in Hungary should demonstrate.

Regardless, no such illusion is possible in America, which is torn not on one seam but on many. Wounds still bleeding must be triaged for present succor, but our national memory must be capacious enough to acknowledge the whole truth, and not only the truth of victory, for there to be any lasting reconciliation. Lincoln’s insight is still relevant. We should properly judge slavery to be an unequivocal evil, and the Confederate cause to have been unsalvageable because it was fundamentally and overwhelmingly that evil cause—not only of defending but of extending slavery. But we should not delude ourselves that, had we sat in our ancestors seats, we would have judged our own cause any more rightly than they did.

Millman is not thinking President Trump will help but is looking to ordinary people for help (can Christian social justice warriors find their inner average?):

Today, we are led by a President as far from Lincoln’s spirit of charity as it is possible to imagine. And so it rests on the shoulders of ordinary Americans to eschew malice. It falls to the descendants of slaves to see men like Lee through the eyes of the descendants of planters, as the exemplar of their country’s virtues, and dispute their place in national memory in a spirit that appreciates that fact. And it falls to the descendants of planters to see him through the eyes of the descendants of slaves, as the American version of Erwin Rommel, Hitler’s favorite general, and let that understanding give them pause when they consider rising to defend his honor.

Imagine that. Being holy means giving up contempt and hatred for other people and trying to identify with them, you know like, grieving with those who grieve.

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Alien Southerners

Has it occurred to many that the same people who have major reservations about the Confederate Monuments generally favor amnesty for undocumented aliens? Sure, that might seem like an inconsistency but the nooks and crannies of citizenship for aliens have more square inches than a container of Thomas’ English muffins.

Consider, for instance, the recent statement by the American Historical Association, the (trigger warning) Cadillac historical professional bodies:

Decisions to remove memorials to Confederate generals and officials who have no other major historical accomplishment does not necessarily create a slippery slope towards removing the nation’s founders, former presidents, or other historical figures whose flaws have received substantial publicity in recent years. George Washington owned enslaved people, but the Washington Monument exists because of his contributions to the building of a nation. There is no logical equivalence between the builders and protectors of a nation—however imperfect—and the men who sought to sunder that nation in the name of slavery.

Thing is, historians do not have the power to determine who is an American citizen. After the Civil War, President Johnson and Congress had to walk a very delicate line between preventing rebels to resume power of state governments while also honoring that the southern states had never seceded and so their governments were still legitimate. Here‘s one angle of the tight rope, namely that President Lincoln advised leniency (more than the AHA):

Lincoln desired to hasten the end of hostilities and quickly reestablish the fraternity of the parted Union. After asking Lincoln what to do with the defeated rebel armies in March 1865, General William Tecumseh Sherman remarked that, “all [Lincoln] wanted of us was to defeat the opposing armies, and to get the men composing the Confederate armies back to their homes at work on their farms and in their shops.” Additionally, the Secretary of the Navy remarked after Lincoln’s last cabinet meeting that Lincoln “was particularly desirous to avoid . . . any vindictiveness of punishment.” Other members of Lincoln’s party were not so forgiving. Many felt that Lincoln’s policies and desires were too soft and wished to punish former Confederates more harshly. They feared that former Confederates, returned to power, would not accept the fruits of Union victory, namely emancipation, and would harass black and white former Unionists in the South. To this extent, The New York Herald on April 16, 1865, estimated that Andrew Johnson’s policy towards former Confederates would be “more tinctured with the inflexible justice of Andrew Jackson than with the prevailing tenderness of Abraham Lincoln.”

Here’s how amnesty worked:

It was under these proclamations that, from May 1865 to December 1868, former Confederates flooded the office of Andrew Johnson with thousands of amnesty requests, with the numbers eventually tapering off as the exemptions narrowed. Each request for amnesty included a signed copy of the oath certifying the individual’s compliance, as well as a personally-written request and a third party endorsement, generally by the governor of that person’s state. The personally written requests generally followed the same sequence: the individual introduced himself and his place of residence and often proclaimed his age. He then described his actions (and/or sentiments) before secession, his conduct during the war, the clause under which he was exempted, and whether or not he had any property confiscated from him. The petitions ranged from brief requests for amnesty to “long and well-prepared defenses” of their conduct.

Petitioners were “anxious” to have their amnesty requests granted and their rights and privileges as citizens of the United States resumed. Their exemption from amnesty precluded them from such activities as the “transfer of titles or properties” and the obtainment of copyrights and patents, making business very difficult. Some were even tentative to marry. Until these individuals were pardoned, they lacked civil rights and faced the prospect of having their property confiscated. Above all, they lacked political rights, and thus could not take part in the discourse involving Reconstruction, and were unable to participate in the future of the South. Thus, asking for pardon was the “sensible thing for these people to do.”

Imagine that. Wanting a working society rather than attitudinal purity.

Finally, President Johnson declared “unconditionally, and without reservation, … a full pardon and amnesty for the offence of treason against the United States, or of adhering to their enemies during the late civil war, with restoration of all rights, privileges, and immunities under the Constitution and the laws …”

That pardon went to everyone but Robert E. Lee. He did not receive his executive pardon until Michigan’s own, President Ford:

Lee sent an application to Grant and wrote to President Johnson on June 13, 1865:

“Being excluded from the provisions of amnesty & pardon contained in the proclamation of the 29th Ulto; I hereby apply for the benefits, & full restoration of all rights & privileges extended to those included in its terms. I graduated at the Mil. Academy at West Point in June 1829. Resigned from the U.S. Army April ’61. Was a General in the Confederate Army, & included in the surrender of the Army of N. Va. 9 April ’65.”

On October 2, 1865, the same day that Lee was inaugurated as president of Washington College in Lexington, Virginia, he signed his Amnesty Oath, thereby complying fully with the provision of Johnson’s proclamation. But Lee was not pardoned, nor was his citizenship restored. And the fact that he had submitted an amnesty oath at all was soon lost to history.

More than a hundred years later, in 1970, an archivist at the National Archives discovered Lee’s Amnesty Oath among State Department records (reported in Prologue, Winter 1970). Apparently Secretary of State William H. Seward had given Lee’s application to a friend as a souvenir, and the State Department had pigeonholed the oath.

In 1975, Lee’s full rights of citizenship were posthumously restored by a joint congressional resolution effective June 13, 1865.

At the August 5, 1975, signing ceremony, President Gerald R. Ford acknowledged the discovery of Lee’s Oath of Allegiance in the National Archives and remarked: “General Lee’s character has been an example to succeeding generations, making the restoration of his citizenship an event in which every American can take pride.”

When will the social justice warriors be heading for Grand Rapids to show their rectitude on the facade of the Ford Presidential Library? If they go, they’ll find good beer.

Even Patriotic Good Works May Be Tainted

The overwhelming case against Confederate Monuments is that either those memorialized or their patrons stood for an evil cause — slavery.

But what if Union Monuments — those memorialized or their patrons — don’t stand for a righteous cause — anti-slavery? What if Union Monuments were designed, like the war itself, to preserve the — get this — Union?

Frederick Douglass pointed out that Abraham Lincoln’s motives in the war were not pure, and that those who came to celebrate the 16th POTUS at the unveiling of the Freedmen’s Memorial Monument, also had mixed motives in the war:

It must be admitted, truth compels me to admit, even here in the presence of the monument we have erected to his memory, Abraham Lincoln was not, in the fullest sense of the word, either our man or our model. In his interests, in his associations, in his habits of thought, and in his prejudices, he was a white man

He was preeminently the white man’s President, entirely devoted to the welfare of white men. He was ready and willing at any time during the first years of his administration to deny, postpone, and sacrifice the rights of humanity in the colored people to promote the welfare of the white people of this country. In all his education and feeling he was an American of the Americans. He came into the Presidential chair upon one principle alone, namely, opposition to the extension of slavery.

His arguments in furtherance of this policy had their motive and mainspring in his patriotic devotion to the interests of his own race. To protect, defend, and perpetuate slavery in the states where it existed Abraham Lincoln was not less ready than any other President to draw the sword of the nation. He was ready to execute all the supposed guarantees of the United States Constitution in favor of the slave system anywhere inside the slave states. He was willing to pursue, recapture, and send back the fugitive slave to his master, and to suppress a slave rising for liberty, though his guilty master were already in arms against the Government. The race to which we belong were not the special objects of his consideration.

Knowing this, I concede to you, my white fellow-citizens, a preeminence in this worship at once full and supreme. First, midst, and last, you and yours were the objects of his deepest affection and his most earnest solicitude. You are the children of Abraham Lincoln. We are at best only his stepchildren; children by adoption, children by forces of circumstances and necessity. To you it especially belongs to sound his praises, to preserve and perpetuate his memory, to multiply his statues, to hang his pictures high upon your walls, and commend his example, for to you he was a great and glorious friend and benefactor.

Having said all that, Douglass was willing to honor Lincoln:

Instead of supplanting you at his altar, we would exhort you to build high his monuments; let them be of the most costly material, of the most cunning workmanship; let their forms be symmetrical, beautiful, and perfect; let their bases be upon solid rocks, and their summits lean against the unchanging blue, overhanging sky, and let them endure forever! But while in the abundance of your wealth, and in the fullness of your just and patriotic devotion, you do all this, we entreat you to despise not the humble offering we this day unveil to view; for while Abraham Lincoln saved for you a country, he delivered us from a bondage, according to Jefferson, one hour of which was worse than ages of the oppression your fathers rose in rebellion to oppose.

America’s Elite Class

Daniel Drezner does not wince when talking about elitism in the United States. His inspiration was the David Brooks column on Italian sandwiches, about which Drezner writes:

Brooks argued that “The educated class has built an ever more intricate net to cradle us in and ease everyone else out. It’s not really the prices that ensure 80 percent of your co-shoppers at Whole Foods are, comfortingly, also college grads; it’s the cultural codes.”

I agree with my Post colleague Tim Carman that outside The Anecdote That Shall Not Be Named, the column was “an otherwise temperate take on the restrictions and social codes that keep the middle class in its place.” As a fully paid-up member of this class, there clearly are expected modes of behavior, and not knowing the unspoken rules of the game acts as a barrier to those trying to enter the meritocratic class. It can still be done, but it’s like learning an additional language.

Then Drezner worries that some of the Trump clan may actually stumble their way into the elite class by being able to order the right Italian sandwich meats:

Based on my own conversations, it would seem that most traditional D.C. wonks look at most of the Trump family and see a bunch of wealthy, not-very-bright boors who do déclassé things like eat their steaks well-done and with ketchup. Indeed, there is a whole conservative genre defending the Trumps for some of their gauche tendencies. Most of the Trumps gleefully ignore the cultural codes that Brooks describes, because they are rich enough to not care.

Then we get to Jared Kushner and Ivanka Trump, and the narrative switches.

The rest of the Trumps might scream bridge and tunnel, but Jared and Ivanka have undeniably mastered the cultural codes of the educated class. It is hard to read a profile of either of them without words like “polished” or “poised” appearing.

Take the opening sentences to Jill Filipovic’s Politico essay from May: “Ivanka Trump is the poised, polished face of a chaotic White House, a bright young mother who many suspect is a voice of reason and moderation among the Steve Bannon acolytes in the West Wing, whispering socially liberal values in her daddy’s ear.” Look at the Post’s Style Section profile of Ivanka from this month: “Ivanka Trump’s office: clean, white, quiet. A zone of punctual start times and promptly offered water bottles, and a conference table at which she conducts meetings. A short, winding walk away from her father’s Oval Office downstairs.” Or as T.A. Frank noted in Vanity Fair, “let’s agree that one of the finest qualities of Jared Kushner is his tailoring. The fit is so good. Even with bespoke work, that’s hard to achieve.”

Let me posit that in mastering the cultural codes of the educated class, Kushner and Ivanka somehow fooled even veteran D.C. observers into presuming that they might actually be qualified and competent as well. Which all evidence suggests is not true.

Drezner believes that expertise on policy is what qualifies someone to rule in America, not expertise in self-promotion, food, or fashion.

As someone who values education, I am hard pressed to knock learning. But my education also tells me that in the United States, you don’t need to be educated to hold public office. George Washington and Abraham Lincoln did not have college educations. Never mind going to the Kennedy School of Government. By the same token, George W. Bush went to Yale and see what good that did him when it came to America’s educated elite.

And don’t forget about those brain surgeons that the Kennedy and Johnson administrations leaned on to devise a policy for the Vietnam War. Sometimes education doesn’t make you a good administrator — just ask any egg-head professor to chair his or her department. See what snafus ensue.

The reality is that with all of Drezner’s brain power, and it is considerable, he could not be POTUS. Well, he could. But he’d have to run for office and somehow portray himself as an ordinary ‘merican because despite the number of college graduates in this fair republic we don’t very often elect Ph.D.’s as POTUS (this is why Senator Sasse where’s not Harvard but Nebraska swag). Last time we did we had Woodrow Wilson and what did he do — used all of his intellectual fire power to fight a war to make THE WORLD, not just the United States, but THE WORLD, safe for democracy (which by the way means that we fought the war not to have educated elites running things)?

Which leads to the real point of this post: the story that the press and scholars are missing is what a novel state of affairs it is to have a POTUS who has no experience with government. Why no feature stories on what it’s like to have to do so many things that you’ve never done before? Or what is it like to be trailed by Secret Service agents? Or what’s it like to live in the White House? Many Americans could possibly imagine being in Donald Trump’s shoes (though what it’s like to be a billionaire is beyond me). We would not have the first clue about running a government as massive as the federal one. And that could be an exciting set of stories. But what we seem to get is reporting about how Trump is subhuman and stupid. Imagine if Bill Gates were POTUS. Would he be prone to the same mistakes? But he’s not the kind of jerk that Trump is so the press goes Jerry Falwell, Sr.

I still wonder, though, whether any of the people criticizing Trump, even Drezner, claim to know what to do as POTUS? Do the journalists or professors of foreign policy have white papers on Iran and how to deploy the CIA or State Department? (And if education is a pre-requisite for governing in the U.S., what is our foreign policy supposed to be with poorly educated rulers of other countries? Doesn’t this way of thinking involve a kind of hierarchy that is supposed to be antithetical to social justice?)

The reality is that nothing in American government prepares you for what you might face in the White House along the lines of war and diplomacy, not to mention the vast scale of administering the federal agencies. Jim Kenney, the mayor of Philadelphia has a degree from Lasalle University? Does that mean he’s not fit to hold a higher office? The governor of Massachusetts, Charlie Baker, has a degree from Harvard and an MBA from Northeastern. But can he stand on that great hill of U.S. foreign policy?

What I was hoping would happen with the Trump presidency was a chance to see the federal government through the eyes of a real outsider. The Trump administration might be an occasion for a POTUS self-study. What is necessary for the executive branch of the federal government? What is so complicated as to create barriers to other citizens serving in public office short of getting the right set of degrees and making the right connections? But alas all we are getting is how Trump fails to reassure many Americans that Washington is the capital of the greatest nation on God’s green earth (well, at least a few steps up from Russia).

1776 and 1861

Brexit is more or less hardwired into the American outlook. But somehow we fought a war that cost close to 700,000 lives to preserve not a federation but a union, not a republic but a nation. That’s what makes America great (many suppose).

But H. L. Mencken thought otherwise. He saw that the Brexit of 1776 also implied the Secexit of 1861:

But let us not forget that it is oratory, not logic; beauty, not sense. Think of the argument in it! Put it into the cold words of everyday! The doctrine is simply this: that the Union soldiers who died at Gettysburg sacrificed their lives to the cause of self-determination — “that government of the people, by the people, for the people,” should not perish from the earth. It is difficult to imagine anything more untrue. The Union soldiers in that battle actually fought against self-determination; it was the Confederates who fought for the right of their people to govern themselves. What was the practical effect of the battle of Gettysburg? What else than the destruction of the old sovereignty of the States, i. e., of the people of the States? The Confederates went into battle an absolutely free people; they came out with their freedom subject to the supervision and vote of the rest of the country—and for nearly twenty years that vote was so effective that they enjoyed scarcely any freedom at all. Am I the first American to note the fundamental nonsensicality of the Gettysburg address? If so, I plead my aesthetic joy in it in amelioration of the sacrilege. H. L. Mencken, “Five Men at Random” 1922

Sacrilege? If you think the U.S. is holy. If it’s just one more liberal society, on the order of Canada or Switzerland, you might agree with Mencken.

Independence Day Blues

Life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness — the most memorable phrase from the Declaration of Independence, arguably. So Father Dwight tries to instruct us on the proper meaning of happiness (which is not as bad as trying to find the true meaning of hedonism, but it still doesn’t go well). Of the four levels of happiness, the ultimate is the “transcendental”:

This highest level of happiness comes when we learn how to serve an even higher being than our neighbor. Our happiness is linked with our self-esteem, and our self-esteem is linked with whether we feel our life is being spent in a worthwhile manner. Those whose lives have a high level of meaning and purpose have high levels of happiness. Those who serve God feel they are living for values and meanings that are eternal in their scope. No matter how negative the circumstances, people who are at the transcendental level of happiness evidence extreme, even ecstatic, happiness. They are not just happy—they are joyful.

As I say, it doesn’t go well since at the end of the article Father Dwight, a regular apologist for Roman Catholicism who points out the foibles and liabilities of his former Protestant communion, tries to make his pitch for happiness sound generically religious. This is how we are supposed to pursue this ultimate form of happiness:

. . . conservatism has always had deep roots in the traditions of faith. Religious belief takes us into the depths of the human experience historically, psychologically, socially, and spiritually. The strength of conservatism is that it is a solid, stable, and secure philosophy. These deep roots are fed by the structures and systems of religion that open the individual to the transcendental dimension of happiness. Conservatism in religion connects the individual to the spiritual giants of the past, and the simple traditions of ancient religion open the individual to experience the true worship of God that experts tell us is the final stage of true happiness.

What about the sacraments, what about the death of Christ, what about sin and purgatory? “Religious belief” will do? Leo XIII would be appalled, but then he was the pope who condemned Americanism, a mild heresy that seems to be more prevalent now than it was 120 years ago.

The worry, though, has less to do with Protestant-Roman Catholic differences than it does with the conflation of “religion” and conservatism. That mix has produced a civil religion that leads many American believers to be very happy about the United States and its mission — except when they turn to despair because its officials have abandoned its religious ideals. Richard Gamble has a good antidote to such civil religion by showing (from a few years ago but recently republished) that even the sainted Abraham Lincoln was guilty of this dangerous conflation of piety and politics:

Such an appropriation of Christianity for politics dominates the Gettysburg Address, from its opening “four score” to its closing “shall not perish.” In the 1970s, literary scholar M.E. Bradford, in his essay, “The Rhetoric for Continuing Revolution,” identified the Gettysburg Address’s “biblical language” as the speech’s “most important formal property.” That is undoubtedly so. Lincoln drew from the King James Version’s archaic words and cadences, as he opened with the biblical-sounding “four score,” an echo of the Psalmist’s “three score and ten” years allotted to man on this earth. He continued with “brought forth,” the words in the Gospel of Luke that describe Mary’s delivery of Jesus—the first instance of what turns out to be a repeated image of conception, birth, life, death, and new birth, culminating in the promise of eternal life in the words “shall not perish”—a startling echo of Jesus’ words to Nicodemus in John 3:16 (“whosoever believeth in Him shall not perish but have everlasting life”).

Lincoln’s speech also engages the other side of civil religion—not the appropriation of the sacred for the purposes of the state, but the elevation of the secular into a political religion. Early in his career, Lincoln had explicitly promoted this kind of civil religion. Again in his 1838 Lyceum address, he called for fidelity to “the blood of the Revolution” and the Declaration, the Constitution, and the laws to serve as America’s sustaining “political religion” now that the founding generation was passing away. In 1863, Lincoln filled the Gettysburg Address with the words “dedicated,” “consecrated,” and “hallow.” The cumulative effect of this sacred language was to set the American Founding, the suffering of the Civil War, and the national mission apart from the mundane world and to transport the war dead and their task into a transcendent realm.

Bellah, a defender of American civil religion who wanted to globalize it in the post-Kennedy years, claimed that Lincoln and the Civil War gave America a “New Testament” for its civic faith: “The Gettysburg symbolism (‘…those who here gave their lives, that that nation might live’) is Christian without having anything to do with the Christian church.”

The link between Gamble’s piece on Lincoln and Father Dwight’s on the Declaration is that both — aside from being alumi of Bob Jones University — are addressing, the former explicitly and the latter only implicitly, civil religion. Gamble is on the lookout. Father Dwight promotes it.

So what is the remedy? Maybe it is to abandon happiness. Life is hard, we seek to serve God in our callings, we die, and our remains await the resurrection. In other words, we await a better country. If we look for happiness in this one, we will “like” Father Dwight’s post and let President Lincoln inspire us.

So maybe the true conservative is the unhappy American. You may see him tonight at the fireworks display. He won’t be smiling. He’ll be fearful because of all the noise and explosions.

When People Believe in God . . .

. . . they believe almost anything. That isn’t how G. K. Chesterton’s famous quote goes, but it seems more accurate than the one he actually penned: “When Man ceases to worship God he does not worship nothing but worships everything.” Christians (Protestant and Roman Catholic) believe a lot of stuff that isn’t in the Bible, which is hard enough to believe. And when it comes to national holidays, Christians believe even more stuff that may be comforting but doesn’t have a lick of logic attached to it. Consider Lincoln, the Civil War, and Memorial Day from the perspective of that unbeliever, H. L. Mencken:

Of Lincolniana, of course, there is no end, nor is there any end to the hospitality of those who collect it. Some time ago a publisher told me that there are four kinds of books that never, under any circumstances, lose money in the United States—first, detective stories; secondly, novels in which the heroine is forcibly debauched by the hero; thirdly, volumes on spiritualism, occultism and other such claptrap, and fourthly, books on Lincoln. But despite all the vast mass of Lincolniana and the constant discussion of old Abe in other ways, even so elemental a problem as that of his religious faith—surely an important matter in any competent biography—is yet but half solved. Here, for example, is the Rev. William E. Barton, grappling with it for more than four hundred large pages in “The Soul of Abraham Lincoln.” It is a lengthy inquiry—the rev. pastor, in truth, shows a good deal of the habitual garrulity of his order— but it is never tedious. On the contrary, it is curious and amusing, and I have read it with steady interest, including even the appendices. Unluckily, the author, like his predecessors, fails to finish the business before him. Was Lincoln a Christian? Did he believe in the Divinity of Christ? I am left in doubt. He was very polite about it, and very cautious, as befitted a politician in need of Christian votes, but how much genuine conviction was in that politeness? And if his occasional references to Christ were thus open to question, what of his rather vague avowals of belief in a personal God and in the immortality of the soul? Herndon and some of his other close friends always maintained that he was an atheist, but Dr. Barton argues that this atheism was simply disbelief in the idiotic Methodist and Baptist dogmas of his time—that nine Christian churches out of ten, if he were alive to-day, would admit him to their high privileges and prerogatives without anything worse than a few warning coughs. As for me, I still wonder.

The growth of the Lincoln legend is truly amazing. He becomes the American solar myth, the chief butt of American credulity and sentimentality. Washington, of late years, has been perceptibly humanized; every schoolboy now knows that he used to swear a good deal, and was a sharp trader, and had a quick eye for a pretty ankle. But meanwhile the varnishers and veneerers have been busily converting Abe into a plaster saint, thus making him fit for adoration in the chautauquas and Y. M. C. A.’s.

Mencken also takes the wind out of the sails of anyone who favors a two-state solution in Israel but insists that the Confederate States were always misbehaving:

The Douglas debate launched [Lincoln], and the Cooper Union speech got him the presidency. This talent for emotional utterance, this gift for making phrases that enchanted the plain people, was an accomplishment of late growth. His early speeches were mere empty fireworks—the childish rhodomontades of the era. But in middle life he purged his style of ornament and it became almost baldly simple— and it is for that simplicity that he is remembered to-day. The Gettysburg speech is at once the shortest and the most famous oration in American history. Put beside it, all the whoopings of the Websters, Sumners and Everetts seem gaudy and silly. It is eloquence brought to a pellucid and almost child-like perfection—the highest emotion reduced to one graceful and irresistible gesture. Nothing else precisely like it is to be found in the whole range of oratory. Lincoln himself never even remotely approached it. It is genuinely stupendous.

But let us not forget that it is oratory, not logic; beauty, not sense. Think of the argument in it! Put it into the cold words of everyday! The doctrine is simply this: that the Union soldiers who died at Gettysburg sacrificed their lives to the cause of self-determination — “that government of the people, by the people, for the people,” should not perish from the earth. It is difficult to imagine anything more untrue. The Union soldiers in that battle actually fought against self-determination; it was the Confederates who fought for the right of their people to govern themselves.

Could it be because Mencken didn’t believe in God he could cut through the shine of the halo and see civil religion for the idolatry it is?

If You Can Believe In God

. . . you can believe almost anything.

Struck down on Good Friday, Lincoln, like Jesus, was viewed as a martyr who shed his blood and offered a redeeming sacrifice. Orators, editors, ministers, and statesmen across the North exalted Lincoln as the “savior of his country,” and sermons two days later on “Black Easter” and subsequent Sundays frequently compared Lincoln with Washington and Jesus. While Washington was the nation’s founder and father, ministers averred, Lincoln was its restorer and redeemer. While Christ died so that people could enjoy heaven, Lincoln died so they could have a better life on earth.

In making Lincoln the nation’s redeemer, ministers had to surmount two major difficulties: first, that he was fatally shot in a theater, an embarrassingly unsanctified place for a savior during the Victorian era. The clergy rationalized his attendance at Ford Theater, arguing that he had gone reluctantly to please his wife and gratify others.

The second, larger difficulty these pastors encountered was that Lincoln had never explicitly testified to his faith in Christ. While some pastors bitterly regretted that he did not publicly profess faith in Jesus Christ as his Lord, others countered that his actions demonstrated his faith or that he had accepted Christ as his savior in response to his son Willie’s death in 1862, or at Gettysburg in 1863, or at some other unknown time.

In their funeral sermons at Washington and Springfield respectively, the two ministers who knew Lincoln best—Phineas Gurley, the pastor of New York Avenue Presbyterian Church in Washington, which Lincoln regularly attended, and Methodist Bishop Matthew Simpson—said little about his personal faith. Gurley stressed that he had an “abiding confidence in the overruling providence of God.” Simpson emphasized that the president had “read the Bible frequently, loved . . . its profound teachings,” and sought to follow its precepts. He also claimed that Lincoln had sincerely striven to live by “the principles of revealed religion” and that no other ruler had shown as much “trust in God.”

To repeat, if Lincoln why not Obama?

Why Not Reformed Anabaptists?

One of the inexplicable aspects of contemporary Reformed Protestantism is the indifference if not ridicule that some Vossians show for two-kingdom theology. This is odd because if any of the current options for living in this world capture the Vossian eschatology than 2k — with a sharp rejection of any immanentization of the eschaton — I have yet to see it. Neo-Calvinists don’t (even if Geerhardus Vos himself leaned neo-Cal). Theonomists? Are you kidding me? Transformationalists of whatever stripe abuse Christianity all the time to add a holy and spiritual lift to any number of earthly and temporal activities.

Nevertheless, 2k continues to fall well short of Vossianism’s stringent standards. Hence, the recent review of David VanDrunen’s Natural Law and Two Kingdoms by William Dennison in the current issue of the Westminster Theological Journal (75: 349-70). I will leave readers to find the rhetoric that surely pushes the plausibility envelope. But Dennison’s conclusion is downright odd:

. . . a number of Reformed and evangelical Christians will champion VanDrunen’s thesis since they continue to loiter in a consciousness shaped by the Holy Roman Empire when the institutions of church and state defined the core of Western human existence as one of the most persistent problems. For them, such a paradigm provides justification for their daily captivation with politico-cultural issues without acknowledging how they may be jeopardizing or compromising their Christian identity. Sadly, in this condition they refuse to deal honestly with the full-orbed eschatological fabric of biblical revelation that has now reached the “fullness of time” . . . . Instead, these believers are paralyzed as they hold on to the “flesh” (in this case, a fixation upon the political nature of a State outside the doman of Christ as mediator of redemption) while trying to live out of the “Spirit.” In other words, VanDrunen’s NL2K model gives a rationale for having one foot solidly in place in the civil culture, and the ohter foot solidly in place in the kingdom of heaven. . . . (369)

Unless I am mistaken, the Augustinian construction of the heavenly and earthly cities is about the only option for Christians who want to avoid the Federal Vision error of imitating Eusebius’ man crush on Constantine, the Benedictine option of leaving civil society for the monastery, or the Anabaptist path of renouncing the magistrate, the sword, and self-defense even as worthy of Christians. As long as the Lord tarries, human beings (saved and unsaved) will live on planet earth and need the magistrate to supply a modicum of social order — that’s why Paul wrote about magistrates being ordained by God. If Dennison wants us to live in the full-orbed eschatology of Scripture, where exactly should we tell the movers to put our stuff or where should we cook our meals? Apparently, behind the pearly gates.

VanDrunen has essentially removed the weapons of spiritual warfare out of the hands of the church with a passion upon the temporal order of two governments and, thus, constructed for believers a provisional model as the dominant paradigm to transport them as a pilgrim people. After all, it is no small task to call the Reformed and broader Christian world to face up to the essential character of biblical eschatology, to ask that all ministers and person in the pew, surrender, think, and live in the christocentric eschatological nature of biblical revelation. So instead of living out the full-orbed conditions of biblical eschatology seated with Christ in the heavenly places, VanDrunen’s NL2K paradigm has surrendered the essential eternal character of the progressive post-fall revelation of God — the seed of the woman versus the seed of the serpent — to focus the believer’s attention upon living in the realm of “commonality” that exists in the civitas permixta. Following such a path, however will only mean that the obsessions with politics which has crippled much of the history of the church will never find resolution, and, even more impoprtant, that believers will ignore their true eschatological freedom from bondage in the present and eternal reign of Christ.

Reading this makes me think we need to talk less about Reformed Baptists and more about Reformed Anabaptists since Dennison sure sounds a lot like the peasants who interpreted the gospel freedom declared by Luther (via Paul) to mean they should be liberated from their social rank as serfs. Would Dennison tell a Christian civil magistrate he is being worldly to think about local laws or policy proposals, that he should as a follower of Christ leave his day job? Does he even suggest that Christian parents are guilty of fleshly concerns to think about sending their children to a Christian college? (The New Testament does seem to have some instruction about life in this world, but maybe I too force a 2k reading on Scripture.)

Still, when Dennison faults VanDrunen for constructing “believers a provisional model as the dominant paradigm to transport them as a pilgrim people” because it is “no small task” to call Christians to live in the light of biblical eschatology, can’t Dennison see that 2k does better than any other option — aside from Reformed Anabaptist — to encourage Christians to live as pilgrim people who know that the affairs of the state are inconsequential compared to those of the kingdom of Christ. My favorite example of this rearrangement of priorities is to try to convince Orthodox Presbyterians that the news in New Horizons is really way more important than what the New York Times’ reporters cover. Most people chuckle because the notion seems absurd. But it is true and that is one of the major points of 2k — the church matters more than politics. Dennison, however, refuses to give credit to 2kers. He only sees threat.

So to show the advantages of 2k and that 2kers themselves may be doing more along the lines of the eschatology that Dennison promotes, here is one example of the two-kingdom doctrine applied to St. Abe, that is, Abraham Lincoln, the president whom most U.S. Protestants regard as the embodiment of Christian and American ideals:

In 1967, sociologist Robert Bellah launched the modern career of “civil religion” as a concept, a way to examine how, on the one hand, the state adopts religious language, ritual, holidays, and symbolism to bind a nation together and how, on the other hand, it elevates its own values and ideas to the status of holy doctrine. Regarding the first type, University of Toronto political theorist Ronald Beiner recently defined civil religion as “the appropriation of religion by politics for its purposes.” Lincoln had been doing this to the Bible since at least 1838. He ended his Lyceum Address by applying Matthew 16:18 to American liberty: “the gates of hell shall not prevail against it.” More famously, in 1858 he quoted Matthew 12:25 to characterize the precarious state of the Union: “A house divided against itself shall not stand.”

Such an appropriation of Christianity for politics dominates the Gettysburg Address, from its opening “four score” to its closing “shall not perish.” In the 1970s, literary scholar M.E. Bradford, in his essay, “The Rhetoric for Continuing Revolution,” identified the Gettysburg Address’s “biblical language” as the speech’s “most important formal property.” That is undoubtedly so. Lincoln drew from the King James Version’s archaic words and cadences, as he opened with the biblical-sounding “four score,” an echo of the Psalmist’s “three score and ten” years allotted to man on this earth. He continued with “brought forth,” the words in the Gospel of Luke that describe Mary’s delivery of Jesus—the first instance of what turns out to be a repeated image of conception, birth, life, death, and new birth, culminating in the promise of eternal life in the words “shall not perish”—a startling echo of Jesus’ words to Nicodemus in John 3:16 (“whosoever believeth in Him shall not perish but have everlasting life”).

Lincoln’s speech also engages the other side of civil religion—not the appropriation of the sacred for the purposes of the state but the elevation of the secular into a political religion. Early in his career, Lincoln had explicitly promoted this kind of civil religion. Again in his 1838 Lyceum address, he called for fidelity to “the blood of the Revolution” and the Declaration, the Constitution, and the laws to serve as America’s sustaining “political religion” now that the founding generation was passing away. In 1863, Lincoln filled the Gettysburg Address with the words “dedicated,” “consecrated,” and “hallow.” The cumulative effect of this sacred language was to set the American Founding, the suffering of the Civil War, and the national mission apart from the mundane world and transport the war dead and their task into a transcendent realm.

Faith Matters but Not Enough to Follow Jesus

This week’s national holiday allowed the Gospel Coalition to don its patriotic colors and wave the flag of civil piety. A post by Thomas Kidd on the faith of George Washington and Abraham Lincoln took a fairly modest line by arguing that the first and sixteenth presidents were not orthodox Christians or even the best of believers. (This concession touched off a debate among the comments on the merits of Peter Lillback’s book on Washington, which is interesting in its own right.)

I believe that Washington, an Episcopalian, was a serious but moderate Christian, but there are reasons to wonder. Whether from personal scruples concerning his worthiness, or some other concern, he never took communion. And he displayed a remarkable aversion to using the name of Jesus in his voluminous correspondence. As Edward G. Lengel’s delightful Inventing George Washington has shown, 19th-century biographers eagerly recalled shadowy memories of Washington being discovered praying privately, to the extent that you’d think the man did little else besides kneeling in the woods. He almost certainly did pray privately, but as a proper Virginia gentleman, he did not wear his faith on his sleeve.

There are graver doubts about Lincoln’s faith, especially early in his life. He developed a reputation as a skeptic as a young lawyer in Springfield, Illinois, and Mary Todd Lincoln concluded that he was not a “technical Christian.” He struggled to put his faith in Christ even as the events of later years took the edge off his religious infidelity. Lincoln grew up in a strongly Calvinist Baptist family, and though he did not embrace all his parents’ beliefs, he became ever-more convinced of the Calvinist doctrine of God’s sovereign rule over human affairs. Richard Carwardine, one of Lincoln’s finest biographers, says that Lincoln presented “his deterministic faith in a religious language that invoked an all-controlling God.”

But despite the weaknesses and errors in Washington and Lincoln’s devotion, Kidd tells us not to worry (maybe even adding a pinch of “be happy”).

Evangelical history buffs spend a lot of time speculating about the personal faith of great historical figures such as Washington and Lincoln. This is an important topic, but there’s a sense in which, for historical purposes, it doesn’t really matter if these presidents were serious Christians. When you broaden the scope of the question, it is easy to demonstrate that religion was very important to both of them. Both endorsed a public role for religion in America, and Lincoln particularly employed religious rhetoric, and the words of the Bible itself, to the greatest effect of any political leader in American history. For Lincoln and Washington, a secularized public square was inconceivable.

So even if we won’t trust these presidents’ profession of faith, we should trust them on the importance of religion to public life. In fact, Kidd even believes that the presidents’ pro-religious views accounts for their political accomplishments.

So yes, I would love to know exactly what Washington and Lincoln believed personally about Jesus. But there’s no question that, in a public sense, faith mattered to them a great deal, and featured centrally in their concept of a thriving American nation. Their reverence for faith’s vital role in the republic helps account for Washington and Lincoln’s greatness.

This is another case where 2k would allow for sound historical and political judgment without having to contort the gospel in the process. After all, if Lincoln and Washington succeeded simply by being pro-faith, what reason would they have for trusting in Christ truly? Kidd does not consider that these presidents might have been less successful because an explicit embrace of Christianity and establishing policies in accord with such support would have violated the Constitution and alienated some voters (especially Roman Catholics who were not so willing to separate morality from theology). For a coalition dedicated to the gospel, it is an odd admission to suggest at TGC’s website that any religious affirmation less than the gospel will do. Not to mention that the kind of utilitarian and generic faith that Washington and Lincoln promoted makes it harder for the gospel to get a hearing since, again, things go as well with a generic Christian God and his morality as they do with an orthodox Christ and the good works that follow from faith.

At the same time, 2k would allow Kidd and his TGC editors to give as many thumbs as they have up to the first and sixteenth presidents — that is, of course, if you agree with the Federalists and Republicans. Since Washington and Lincoln were officers of the United States, the criteria for evaluating their presidencies should not be religious or quasi-religious but political. 2k allows a Christian to esteem Washington and Lincoln without having to run them through the grid of where they come down on the gospel, the deity of Christ, or how many times they invoke, in Washington’s less than orthodox phrasing, “the benign Parent of the human race.”