Lincoln’s faith

By John Graham

From Isaiah, chapter 55:

“For my thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are your ways my ways, says the Lord. For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts. For as the rain and the snow come down from heaven, and do not return there until they have watered the earth, making it bring forth and sprout, giving seed to the sower and bread to the eater, so shall my word be that goes out from my mouth; it shall not return to me empty, but it shall accomplish that which I purpose, and succeed in the thing for which I sent it.”

With only a few exceptions (his children, possibly a few fellow lawyers), Abraham Lincoln loved at a distance. From the time he entered public life, he had an agenda for just about every conversation and every encounter. He saw clearly where people fit into a larger picture, and deployed them, with or without their knowledge and consent, to achieve his goals.

Lincoln’s father uprooted the family frequently during Abraham’s childhood and youth. And Abraham (following in the footsteps of his Biblical namesake?) uprooted himself from his family as soon as he could. He put lots of time and space between himself and what he thought of as his father’s brutish insistence on the primacy of backbreaking manual labor. (Lincoln’s allies used the “railsplitter” myth to his advantage, but Lincoln himself had long since found better ways to make a living.) Lincoln made himself a master of self-distancing in the bosom of the family.

Despite all of this, though, we don’t remember Lincoln as a master manipulator, or as cold or remote in the manner of, say, George Washington. We think of him as “Father Abraham”, kind, tender-hearted, staying up late at night to find reasons to pardon deserters. “With malice toward none, with charity for all” captures his legacy.

We can attribute this to three components of Lincoln’s character that came into high relief during the blood and fire of the Civil War. First: his wit. Used earlier in his career to flay his opponents mercilessly, it became almost exclusively self-deprecatory during the nation’s great trial. Second: his patience. No one left Lincoln’s presence thinking that his mind had been elsewhere during their conversation. He listened with great care, sometimes at great length, when the pressures of time and the demands of schedule must have felt overwhelming. He used almost everything he heard for his own purposes, of course, but no one seemed to mind. Third: his flexibility. Within the boundaries of his core principles, Lincoln had no trouble ceding points he regarded as secondary – and he regarded a very broad range of issues as “secondary”. He allowed no “litmus tests” to find their way into his small repertory of primary concerns and principles.

Wit, patience, flexibility: these softened Lincoln’s shrewdness, his calculating nature, and bequeathed us the image of a compassionate father we now cherish.

A favorite professor of mine used to say, “If the end doesn’t justify the means, what does?” We cut some people a lot of slack in this regard, because we believe their hearts are in the right place. Even if they use us, we don’t doubt their love for us. We might even be glad to play a part in a performance they’re orchestrating. I’ve heard musicians of great talent say they think of themselves as empty vessels, through which the genius of a Bach or an Ellington can flow unimpeded. Lincoln’s colleagues, looking back, felt like this about him. Being loved at a distance by Lincoln, seen as means to his ends, seemed superior to just about any other human love they had known.

In the last four or five years of his life, I believe, Lincoln came to regard God in the way many regarded Lincoln himself. He always used impersonal terms to speak of God: “the Almighty,” “Providence,” “Divine Being.” I don’t recall ever reading of an instance in which the term “Father”, or any more intimate invocation, crossed his lips. “The Almighty has His own purposes,” he wrote in the Second Inaugural Address. In Lincoln’s mind the Almighty loved him and the nation he served from a distance, using both as instruments for the realization of purposes higher than either could fully grasp.

Seen in this way, by an age that craves intimacy with God and isn’t sure how to get it, Lincoln’ religion seems unsatisfying. Still, we face a vast and baffling universe, and even the currents of economic life, let alone the larger forces of history, seem to have eluded our understanding and careened out of our control. Surely some part of us hopes God is not just with us, but far beyond us; that the Almighty has his own purposes, higher than ours. Love from a distance does not fill the void we all sense in our midst, but it offers its own satisfactions. Lincoln’s melancholy may have come from the unfulfilled yearning for an intimacy that neither his father nor God, as he understood God, could offer. But his undoubted serenity surely derived from his conviction that human aspiration could not contain or control the Almighty.

The Rev. John Graham is rector of Grace, Georgetown in Washington, D. C. This article will appear in the March issue of the Washington Window.

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