Thursday, May 05, 2005

Lincoln's God

One of the many confusing things about theists, especially of the Christian variety, is that God is responsible for all that's good, and absent, or at least a neutral observer, during the bad. Isn't this why athletes praise God when they bomb a homerun or score a touchdown, yet never curse the Almighty when they strike out or fumble? (God, how I would pay to see a middle-finger extend to the heavens the next time an athlete screws up.)

David Brooks traveled in this inconsistency today in his latest op-ed. For Brooks, God is a positive inspiration for public policy. His historical example takes us into the thick of the civil war when President Lincoln finally decided to free the slaves with his Emancipation Proclamation. (Which by the way ignores slaves freeing themselves before Lincoln had God's approval. Should they have waited until God's wisdom touched Lincoln's soul?) Here's Brooks version of events:
On Sept. 22, 1862, Abraham Lincoln gathered his cabinet to tell them he was going to issue the Emancipation Proclamation. He said he had made a solemn vow to the Almighty that if God gave him victory at Antietam, Lincoln would issue the decree.

Lincoln's colleagues were stunned. They were not used to his basing policy on promises made to the Lord. They asked him to repeat what he'd just said. Lincoln conceded that "this might seem strange," but "God had decided the question in favor of the slaves."

I like to think about this episode when I hear militant secularists argue that faith should be kept out of politics. Like Martin Luther King Jr. a century later, Lincoln seemed to understand that epochal decisions are rarely made in a secular frame of mind. When great leaders make daring leaps, they often feel themselves surrendering to Divine Providence, and their strength flows from their faith that they are acting in accordance with transcendent moral truth.
There are three things that bother me in the preceding paragraphs. First, Lincoln's God must be the God of the Old Testament rather than the new, considering a bloodbath (Antietam) resulted in favor of the slaves -- essentially the wicked got theirs.

Second, he misrepresented "militant secularists" and their views. As a "militant secularist," I don't like overt faith in politics. Faith might be an undercurrent that shapes the views of people and I would never rob anyone of those religious convictions. Yet when faith is marshalled as the major motivation for public policy (i.e. same-sex marriage, abortion, stem cell research)I have a huge problem. Public policy based on faith results in a tautology. "Why should we pass this law? Because God dictates it."


The Founding Fathers understood the molotov cocktail that results from a conjoining of religion and politics and rightly separated the two for each's benefit. Moreover, democracy is based on the people en masse. This essentially makes it a pragmatic form of government because it must accomodate the manifold differences contained in the body politic. By choosing one faith over all others, tyranny ensues as a privileged class arises (i.e. those troublesome Taliban). Therefore, I don't necessarily have a big problem with faith influencing politics when reason, or as Brooks scoffs, "enlightened reason," bears out those religious convictions.

Lastly, I'll ask this rhetorical question: "Is anyone out there cool with leaders 'surrending to Divine Providence,' when they cannot be assured their leaders are listening to the same divine providence they're listening to?"

Brooks rightly holds up Lincoln as a politician that integrated skepticism with religious belief. But his historical example is weak. If Lincoln seriously freed the slaves due to a quid pro quo with God, it dilutes the courage associated with that action for me. Also, Brooks neglects to mention that while abolitionists were quoting scripture for freedom, clerics down south were quoting that same Holy Bible in favor of continued enslavement. Paradoxically, each camp was right as they were both wrong to look to that book for the answer.