March 04, 2015

Lincoln rejects American exceptionalism and divine anointing

One hundred fifty years ago today, Abraham Lincoln challenged John Winthrop's (and later, Ronald Reagan's and today's religious right) idea that America was a "city on a hill." And, though this term wasn't around, arguably he at least indirectly challenged American exceptionalism.

First, Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address, if anything, rejects the occasional off the wall claim, whether by some modern Gnu Atheists or his old law partner, William Herndon, that Lincoln was an atheist. Even when clerking with Herndon, he wasn’t; his “Doctrine of Necessity” pegs him as being something like a Deist run through a Calvinist filter.

But, by the time the Civil War was nearing its conclusion, even if he were not an “orthodox Christian,” he had become more religious than before, not less.

Let’s get to the meat of his Second Inaugural, which will show that, as he talks about the two sides in the Civil War.
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.
Since the Old Testament positively detailed slavery, and the New Testament had Paul telling Onesimus (and other unnamed slaves in other authentic writings of Paul) to accept slavery because the eschaton was near, Lincoln’s “strange” is interesting. I see it as being in part a rhetorical trope. Yet, I see it as being literally meant, as well. And Lincoln knew his bible well enough. This shows that he, whatever his religious background was at this point, was not a fundamentalist.

But, back to the main point. Because neither was fully right, and (taking Lincoln’s assumption of a divinity as fact for the sake of this piece), neither was fully granted its boons sought in prayer, a “divine anointing” of America, i.e., a city on a hill, simply wasn’t true. Nor was it true back in 1600s Massachusetts.

After all, Winthrop’s own Massachusetts explicitly legalized slavery in 1641. It was never huge, but it was about 2 percent of the population in the middle of the 1700s. And, as both Lincoln and Southerners knew, Massachusetts ships transported many of the South’s slaves from Africa. (And, Massachusetts never did formally and legally abolish slavery within its own borders until passing the 13th Amendment.)

So, if slavery were wrong, by some non-theistic natural law and morals, or whatever, Winthrop's city on a hill wasn't one so much.

And, further undermining at least the idea of American exceptionalism? This:
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.
Divine justice, more than a denial of American exceptionalism, to be sure.

However, it is also a denial of American exceptionalism. If America were that exceptional, then it would not need to be so chastised by a deity as to learn again that:
(T)he judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether.
Now, some Christians of the conservative stripe may try to stand that on its head, and claim that the amount of chastisement god delivers to America is proof of his special love for America, and thus, as his city on a hill, its exceptionalism.

Hmm … Second Isaiah tried the same tack for post-exilic Judah. And, it was also wrong. And proven to be wrong by those post-exilic people.

As for Lincoln? He wasn't perfect, and he wasn't a 2-dimensional plaster saint, nor even the 2.5 dimensions that Spielberg made him. But, he was our best president and this shows why.

Meanwhile, 100 years later, Lyndon Johnson followed up on Lincoln with his "Selma" speech, explicitly calling for full civil rights for African-Americans — and Hispanics.

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