Abe Lincoln on avoiding a tribal God

John Buchanan, editor and publisher of the Christian Century, has written an interesting essay reminding us of wisdom of Abraham Lincoln’s second inaugural address. In particular, it is a useful antidote to a religious tribalism that is beginning to infect political life:

Like the Gettysburg Address, [Lincoln’s second inaguaral address] was a relatively brief speech in a day when public orators, particularly politicians, spoke for hours—only 703 words, 505 of one syllable. (What a model for preachers.)

Frederick Douglass said of the Second Inaugural: “The address sounded more like a sermon than a state paper.” White cites Reinhold Niebuhr’s comment: “Lincoln’s religious convictions were superior in depth and purity to those held by the religious as well as the political leaders of the day.”

The Second Inaugural contains Lincoln’s notable words about the war: “Both sides read the same Bible,” Lincoln said, “pray to the same God and each invokes His aid against the other. . . . The prayers of both could not be answered: that of neither has been answered fully.” White says that Lincoln was “inveighing against a tribal God” who would take the side of one part against the other, “and building a case for an inclusive God.”

I can’t think of more relevant words in a time when religion is used for partisan political purposes. And I don’t know a more noble or apt sentiment for our time than the one with which this president concluded: “With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation’s wounds, to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan, to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations.”

Read it all here.

I am also reminded of the famous story of Lincoln being asked whether God was on the side of the North. He responded simply that the more important question was whether he and the rest of the Union were on the side of God.

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