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     Feb 14, 2012


Lincoln's fatalism and American faith
By Spengler

A retired US Marine officer with whom I corresponded asked, "What type of crisis do you think will cause the intellectual right to form a critical mass - if that is even possible?" I wrote back, "Lincoln's Second Inaugural is chiseled on the wall of his monument, and he said all that needs to be said. If they won't take it from Lincoln, why would they take it from us?" But it's Lincoln's birthday, and it's time for another try.

Abraham Lincoln is America's least popular president. It seems odd to say this given the near-deification of a man who was born

 
in a log cabin but whose image resides in a mock-up of the Temple of Zeus at Olympus. But Americans remain horrified at what he actually said, namely that we do not control our own destinies, but are subject to a providence that is "just and righteous altogether", even if it makes terrible demands upon us.

We Americans in general do not want to be an "almost chosen people", as Lincoln characterized us. We would rather believe that we are exceptional in the same way that the Greeks or British think they are exceptional, in Barack Obama's notorious putdown, or that our exceptionalism can be freeze-dried and exported through nation-building.

Lincoln appears in the popular literature as a paternal figure preaching "charity towards all and malice towards none", ignoring the proviso that the charity would apply only after unconditional surrender. In the middlebrow account, Lincoln is a national Rorschach Test, from whom every strand of American thinking can take comfort. Andrew Ferguson, for example, argued in a 2008 First Things essay that Lincoln's speeches ...
... are not merely works of statecraft but homilies in a civil religion of his own devising, steeped in the cadences and rhetoric of the King James Bible. They were the consequence of Lincoln's deepest contemplation and belief, arrived at with some care and (we may suppose) discomfort.
Lincoln's religion is indecipherable, claims Ferguson, who thinks that is a good thing:
But perhaps the country has benefited from not knowing. The uncertainty has made Lincoln our common property, whoever we are, from Robert Ingersoll to Cardinal Mundelein to Nettie Maynard. It may be indeed that Lincoln's is the only kind of religious expression that will travel in a free country like ours. His religion has lasted a century and a half and has appealed to believers of all kinds, and to skeptics too, exactly because of its generality. Yet it still means something definable and concrete: The country, Lincoln believed, is the carrier of a precious cargo, a proposition that is the timeless human truth, and the survival of this principle will always be of providential importance. We assent to Lincoln's creed, wide open as it is, when we think of ourselves as Americans.
The best academic research, though, shows that it is willfully fuzzy-minded to portray Lincoln as the political equivalent of Lil' Abner's Shmoo, which tasted like whatever one wanted it to eat. Lincoln's religion - the theology that informed his almost prophetic utterances toward the end of the Civil War - was a form of Calvinism in direct succession to the Puritan founders of New England. Hardly a "civil religion" of his own invention, it recognized the righteousness of the biblical God of the time of the Exodus.

As the distinguished Lincoln scholar Douglas L Wilson put it, "Lincoln seems to have resisted the religious beliefs of his parents, [but] he retained throughout his life a fatalism that one may believe was fostered by the Calvinist bent of his Baptist upbringing." Observes historian James Takach, "Indeed, more than one Lincoln scholar has connected Lincolnís belief in the Doctrine of Necessity to the Calvinist doctrine of predestination. ... He retained the fatalistic premise at its core: that man does not control his own destiny." Similarly, David Herbert Donald observes that Lincoln, from his earliest days, "had a sense that his destiny was controlled by a larger force, some Higher Power". [1] And Alonzo C Guelzo says the Second Inaugural Address "contains the most radically metaphysical question ever posed by an American president. Lincoln had come, by the circle of a lifetime and the disasters of war, to confront once again the Calvinist God ... who possessed a conscious will to intervene, challenge and reshape human destinies". [2]

"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 bond-manís 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 said in his Second Inaugural address.

Lincoln knew that his views would not be popular. In a famous March 15, 1865, letter to Thurlow Weed, Lincoln explained that his just-delivered speech would not be "immediately popular", because "men are not flattered by being shown that there is a difference of purpose between the Almighty and them. To deny it, though, in this case would be to deny that there is a God governing the world."

Lincolnís celebrated statement that God held both sides in the Civil War to strict account for their transgressions echoes John Winthropís warning that God would hold America to stricter account "because he would sanctify those who come near him". What applied to ancient Israel applied also to the almost chosen people of America. 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."

Americans chiseled the text of the Second Inaugural address onto Lincolnís Memorial: "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?" The Biblical faith of Israel refracted through Calvin acknowledges the divine attribute of justice along with the attribute of mercy.

As the evangelical historian Mark Noll observes in Americaís God, that is not always a source of comfort. "Views of providence," Noll writes, "provide the sharpest contrast between Lincoln and the professional theologians of his day." He adds that "the American God may have been working too well for the Protestant theologians who, even as they exploited Scripture and pious experience so successfully, yet found it easy to equate Americaís moral government of God with Christianity itself. Their tragedy - and the greater the theologian, the greater the tragedy - was to rest content with a God defined by the American conventions Godís own loyal servants had exploited so well." [3]

Americans have locked Lincoln up in a marble box on the National Mall - a mock-Greek temple imitating the temple of Zeus at Olympus - and hoped he would stay put in it. Calvinism died with the Civil War: Americans decided that they would rather not have a God who demanded sacrifice from them on this scale.

They did not want to be a Chosen People held accountable for their transgressions. Instead they wanted a reticent God who withheld his wrath while they set out to make the world amenable to their own purposes. The New England elite went to war as convinced abolitionists singing of the coming of God who trampled out the vintage of the grapes of wrath, as in the prophetic vision of Isaiah 63, and wielded a terrible swift word. They came back convinced that no idea could be so righteous or so certain as to merit the unspeakable sacrifices of their generation.

In his book The Metaphysical Club, Louis Menand argues that the horrors of the Civil War desanguinated the idealism of such young New Englanders as the future Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr and the psychologist William James. The war purged them of their Puritan convictions and left in its place the vapid pragmatism that has reigned since then in American elite culture.

In place of the paternal God of The Battle Hymn of the Republic, Americans got the avuncular God of Social Gospel, the ebullient Anglo-Saxon pretention of Theodore Roosevelt, and Wilsonian "Idealism". Americaís reaction to the Civil War, the costliest conflict between the Thirty Yearsí War in Germany and the Second World War on the Russian front, recalls Sholom Aleichemís Tevye the Carpenter: "God of mercy, choose another people".

The terrible sacrifice of the Civil War had soured Americans on their covenant with the God of the Bible. Americans did not want to be the instrument of a Divine Providence that would hold them to account for their transgressions, in the vision of Winthrop and Lincoln. They no longer wanted Puritan election - certainly not at the price level of the Civil War.

American Calvinism - specifically the belief that God's purposes transcended our knowledge and might conflict with our wishes - had remained the decisive residual influence on Lincoln and his generation. After the Civil War, it was replaced by the conceit that political tinkering and social engineering could remake the world in Americaís image - an underhanded way of stating that there is nothing really special about America, and that Americaís unique character as a country whose citizens selected themselves from out of the other nations does not really distinguish it from nations defined by blood, tradition, and geography. From this muddy well came both the naive universalism of the Southern Baptist Jimmy Carter and the Wilsonian optimism of George W Bush.

When will the intellectual right form a critical mass? Just as it was in 1861 - when it absolutely must, and there is no more wiggle-room for self-consoling illusions about our ability to master our own destiny.

Notes:
1. Lincoln's Moral Vision: The Second Inaugural Address, by James Takach (University of Mississippi Press, 2002), p 62.
2. Takach, p 92.
3. Americaís God, by Mark Noll (Oxford University Press, 2002), 438pp.


Spengler is channeled by David P Goldman. His book How Civilizations Die (and why Islam is Dying, Too) was published by Regnery Press in September 2011. A volume of his essays on culture, religion and economics, It's Not the End of the World - It's Just the End of You, also appeared this fall, from Van Praag Press.

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