Whatever you might think of his policies, President Donald Trump’s effort to appropriate the legacy of President Abraham Lincoln cannot be allowed to stand.
Earlier this year Trump held a press conference virtually in the lap of Lincoln’s statute at the Lincoln Memorial to connect to his fellow “wartime President.” Trump even lobbied for a place next to Lincoln on Mount Rushmore. Now, the “Party of Lincoln” just finished its convention with the virtual deification of Trump as the “new Lincoln.”
Please. To paraphrase Lloyd Bentsen’s famous takedown of Dan Quayle: Mr. President, you are no Abe Lincoln.
Some contrasts between the two are obvious, such as their attitudes toward Confederate generals: Trump seeks to memorialize them; Lincoln gave all he had to defeat them.
But the more profound difference between the two men is in the realm of faith and spiritual reflection, something worth recalling in this election season.
It never would have occurred to Lincoln to use a bible as a prop in a photo op (nor would he have held it upside down and mispronounced First Corinthians). Lincoln actually read the Bible.
Few, if any, Presidents have been as biblically literate as Lincoln. Growing up desperately poor, with virtually no other reading material, the Bible was Lincoln’s teacher, with daily readings and teachings. He memorized entire chapters of Isaiah, the Gospels and the Psalms, and throughout his life would quote them flawlessly to accentuate a point. His private letters and public proclamations (which he wrote himself) are replete with biblical allusions and themes.
He eloquently interpreted the grief, fear and pain of his days in the light of the biblical motifs of judgment, punishment, justice, mercy and reconciliation. On the other hand, he held a special disgust for clergy who pretended to understand or who misused the Bible, for politicians who feigned sanctimony by using a Bible or biblical references as props and for those who denied that Black lives mattered through shallow Christian claims.
Lincoln’s abhorrence of the “monstrous injustice of slavery” was rooted in both his convictions of faith and his commitment to the constitutional promise that “all men (sic) are created equal.” He firmly believed that American slavery was an outrage to God for which America suffered a civil war, and Blacks were men and therefore guaranteed equality. He held these fervent beliefs even through four years of horrific slaughter. He would not be patient with a government official with his knee on a Black man’s neck.
Lincoln was agonizingly self-reflective and conflicted about formal religion. He steadfastly refused to formally join any church or to subscribe to any formal dogma or creed, and he was openly skeptical of the rock-ribbed Calvinism of his time. And yet faith burned brightly and always in his mind. He breathed the spirit of Christianity. His faith evolved thoughtfully over the years. In his suffering, he grasped always for deeper faith, often praying: “…in my poor maimed withered way…I go on seeking a deeper faith, with him of old, exclaiming, ‘O God, help my disbelief!’” He prayed regularly, sought counsel from clergy and read the Bible constantly. He even “participated” in a prayer group, by sitting in the pastor’s office and listening to the discussion through a closed door. Many scholars have concluded that he was “deeply and thoughtfully religious.” Leo Tolstoy even asserted that Lincoln was “Christ in miniature.”
Coming back to our contrasts, Lincoln was contemptuous of grandiosity, deflating the pompous and egotistical with a rapier wit. He was by all accounts a thoroughly humble man.
In his correspondence he denied “any claims of sagacity” and attributed all peace and wartime successes to the Deity and the efforts of others. (“I am but a humble instrument,” he wrote, “ in the hands of our Heavenly Father.”) He translated this personal humility into national policy: establishing a “National Day of Humiliation, Prayer and Fasting” and setting aside the last Thursday of November as national Day of Thanksgiving and Praise — a holiday we still celebrate.
This quality of humility was rooted in Lincoln’s innate empathy and kindness. His biographies are filled with anecdotes of him reaching out to young soldiers, grieving families, everyday people, and even his political opponents and wartime enemies. He never campaigned by claiming that his opponents were “against God,” or demeaning their families, their physical disabilities or their citizenship. He would be appalled by that lack of human decency.
Even facing the oncoming horrors of war, he sought reconciliation and a common dedication to a higher purpose: “We are not enemies, but friends,” he proclaimed in his First Inaugural Address. “We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained, it must not break our bonds of affection… will yet swell…when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.”
And this sentiment carried through to his Second Inaugural Address, even after the horrors of war: ” With malice toward none; with charity for all; with firmness in the right, as God give us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in; to bind up the nation’s wounds…” and in to the soaring eloquence of his Gettysburg Address: “…that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom, and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.”
Ah, we yearn for a man such as this.
James K. Robertson, Jr. is an ordained United Church of Christ minister and a partner in the law firm Carmody Torrance Sandak Hennessey.