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Abraham Lincoln's God
The Second Inaugural Address as a Model of an Authentic Public Piety

lincolnIn the opening years of the 21st Century in the US, the name of God is being used -- and abused -- more frequently than ever by politicians and other leaders. Today, nearly every campaign speech ends with "God Bless America!" One gets the impression that what is actually being said in these three words is: "God bless my candidacy," or "May the voters be duly impressed by may sincerity, piety and conviction." Often, the name of God is invoked directly to rally support for a particular policy or decision of the speaker. Certainly, this tendency is understandable. What better endorsement of one's leadership could there possibly be than that of the Lord God Almighty?

Unfortunately, there is a very thin line between an authentic acknowledgment of God, and taking the name of the Lord in vain. How easily public expressions of piety become blasphemy as the name of God is treated as little more than a code word invoked to appeal to the listener's heartstrings. No wonder that in reaction to all this, some prefer to remain silent about their deepest convictions, equating all public expressions of piety with hypocrisy. Fortunately, between the extremes of false piety and silence, there is a better way.

Few public leaders have used the name of God with greater authenticity than Abraham Lincoln did in his Second Inaugural Address. One of the most important speeches in American history, the full text appears below. Addressing the entire nation, not just those who supported his election, and speaking as much to those in the South as to those in the North, this was no "us against them," attempt to rally his "base."  Here you will find no effort to demonize an enemy. Rather Lincoln invokes the name of God, not in justification of his own decisions, but as the transcendent deity whose judgments alone are "true and true and righteous altogether."

In an age, such as our own, when one side in the culture wars invokes the name of God far too easily and with such callous disregard for the truth, while the other side tends to eschew faith based truth claims altogether, Lincoln's example is refreshing and inspiring.


Second Inaugural Address
Saturday, March 4, 1865

Weeks of wet weather preceding Lincoln's second inauguration had caused Pennsylvania Avenue to become a sea of mud and standing water. Thousands of spectators stood in thick mud at the Capitol grounds to hear the President. As he stood on the East Portico to take the executive oath, the completed Capitol dome over the President's head was a physical reminder of the resolve of his Administration throughout the years of civil war. Chief Justice Salmon Chase administered the oath of office. In little more than a month, the President would be assassinated.


Fellow-Countrymen:

  AT this second appearing to take the oath of the Presidential office there is less occasion for an extended address than there was at the first. Then a statement somewhat in detail of a course to be pursued seemed fitting and proper. Now, at the expiration of four years, during which public declarations have been constantly called forth on every point and phase of the great contest which still absorbs the attention and engrosses the energies of the nation, little that is new could be presented. The progress of our arms, upon which all else chiefly depends, is as well known to the public as to myself, and it is, I trust, reasonably satisfactory and encouraging to all. With high hope for the future, no prediction in regard to it is ventured.
  On the occasion corresponding to this four years ago all thoughts were anxiously directed to an impending civil war. All dreaded it, all sought to avert it. While the inaugural address was being delivered from this place, devoted altogether to saving the Union without war, urgent agents were in the city seeking to destroy it without war—seeking to dissolve the Union and divide effects by negotiation. Both parties deprecated war, but one of them would make war rather than let the nation survive, and the other would accept war rather than let it perish, and the war came.
  One-eighth of the whole population were colored slaves, not distributed generally over the Union, but localized in the southern part of it. These slaves constituted a peculiar and powerful interest. All knew that this interest was somehow the cause of the war. To strengthen, perpetuate, and extend this interest was the object for which the insurgents would rend the Union even by war, while the Government claimed no right to do more than to restrict the territorial enlargement of it. Neither party expected for the war the magnitude or the duration which it has already attained. Neither anticipated that the cause of the conflict might cease with or even before the conflict itself should cease. Each looked for an easier triumph, and a result less fundamental and astounding. 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. 

"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." 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? 

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, as was said three thousand years ago, so still it must be said "the judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether."
  With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation's wounds, to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan, to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations.

Charles Henderson

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The Rev. Charles P. Henderson is a Presbyterian minister and Executive Director of
  CrossCurrents.
He is the author of God and Science (John Knox Press, 1986).  
A revised and expanded version of the book is appearing here.
God and Science (Hypertext Edition, 2005).
He is also editor of a new book, featuring articles by world class scientists and theologians, and illustrating the leading views on the relationship between science and religion:
Faith, Science and the Future (CrossCurrents Press, 2007).

Charles also tracks the boundry between the virtual and the real at his blog: Next World Design, focusing on the mediation of art, science and spirituality in the metaverse.  

For more information about Charles Henderson.