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Tim Stafford

With God on Our Side?

Lincoln's Second Inaugural Address.

God has come back as an important character in the story of war. Since September 11, political and military leaders claim God's side, while characterizing their opponents as satanic, pure evil. Daily newspapers expound ancient religious texts, and in the next day's op-ed, contrary texts are cited. Mosques and churches are full. Millions of ordinary people pray to God for victory, though they pray on opposite sides for opposite ends.

So it was also in our American Civil War, so much so that the wisest and shrewdest politician in our history, Abraham Lincoln, devoted his most important speech of 1865 largely to religious claims. Ronald White has written a book about Lincoln's Second Inaugural, a speech so brief it fits easily on two pages of a book. This might seem to be the ultimate in scholarly overkill, 234 pages to account for only two, but White's efforts pay off.

Lincoln gave the speech just when the end of the war seemed in sight, only weeks before Lee's surrender. Any decent speechwriter would have found the occasion easy. First Lincoln ought to celebrate promises fulfilled. The Union had stayed the course and won the war, saving the world's last best hope and freeing millions of slaves to boot. Then, Lincoln should turn to plans and prospects. How soon could they expect the final triumph, and what policies would peace bring? How would the evil of slaveholders and traitors be punished? How would the faithfulness of Union soldiers (and their widows and orphans) be rewarded? But Lincoln spoke to none of these issues. He gave a quiet, deep speech in which every crafted line tolls like a funeral bell.

Lincoln began by indicating what he would not do: any of the above. Instead he took up an extremely peculiar topic: how little the war had lived up to anyone's hopes and prayers and manipulations. Both sides had tried to avoid a war. Both sides had prayed for victory in the war. Neither side had anticipated the awful duration of the war, or its side effects. By implication, all parties had believed themselves masters of the war, but the war had taken its own course quite independent of their plans. Lincoln spoke of this with astonishing even-handedness. The war had humbled both sides, including the victorious side.

In even subtler terms Lincoln moved on to ask what the war meant. If its course escaped the plans and directions of both North and South, whose plans and directions, if anyone's, did it reflect? Here White makes a signal contribution in spelling out the difference between fatalism and providence. Lincoln, he is convinced for a number of good reasons, believed in providence. (One reason is that the churches he attended throughout his adult life were consistently Old School Presbyterian, deeply indebted to Charles Hodge and his understanding of God's sovereignty.) Historians sometimes say that Lincoln grew increasingly fatalistic through the war, that his faith in human agency was scored by tragedy and severe disappointment. White agrees about the loss of faith in human agency but claims cogently that Lincoln believed (and spoke in the Second Inaugural) of something quite different than fatalism. "For Hodge, the recognition of the personality of God was the key to the distinction between providence and fatalism." To correctly read the Second Inaugural, then, one must look for Lincoln's judgments as to God's purposes—the expression of his personal attributes—in the events of the war.

By all accounts, Lincoln had a settled distaste for claims to identify God's will—especially to identify God's will with your own. He was always skittish about religion, unwilling to speak plainly about his own faith though he might have made political capital from it. Nevertheless, in the Second Inaugural he speaks plainly, if provisionally, about God's purposes in the war. They are two. One is to remove slavery from America. (Notably, neither side had intended to do so. At the outset of the war Lincoln had pledged not to attempt to do so.) The other is to judge both sides, North and South, for the offense of slavery—to take back all the wealth that slavery had piled up on both sides of the Mason-Dixon line, and to pay for every drop of blood drawn with the whip by another drawn by the sword. If these are indeed the intentions of God in the war—and they were never contemplated by either side as they planned and prayed to God—then nevertheless they comport completely with what we know of the righteousness of God, his character. So Lincoln says.

Only in the last brief paragraph, a single winding sentence, does Lincoln come to the point of these theological reflections. He is not a theologian but a politician. More, he is the President of the United States. It is important to understand the war theologically because that is the truth about the war, as vital for a clear-headed view of conduct as a knowledge of supply lines and railroad schedules. God's will cannot be thwarted. The penalty for the offense of slavery must be paid, and it has been paid by both sides. God has not separated them, punishing only slaveholders. He has punished them together. And he has removed the offense that drove them to war. There is no more slavery. The ground for rebuilding the nation in humility, in charity for both sides, is established already by providence. Therefore, "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." Lincoln's concluding phrases have to do with building peace within America between opposing factions, and with the rest of the world.

That, it seems clear, was Lincoln's interest all along. The war was all but over. How to establish peace? How to bring forth from the horrible carnage and hatred something like brotherhood again? Having saved the Union from dismemberment, how could they establish a Union that was more than a legal fiction? Such questions Lincoln could only answer based on an understanding of what God's work had been in the war. All other claims of victory were false, he said. God had won the war, and established the basis of peace.

Reading this speech again, and thinking of its message, one cannot help wishing that God would send another Lincoln. It is now 137 years since his Second Inaugural, and rarely in all time has an American political leader even come close to speaking with such depth and wisdom.

Lincoln's wisdom has currency today, to remind us (whose claim to a righteous cause cannot surpass the North's, certainly) that God's ways are not our ways, that his providence seldom provides precisely what we ask for. The lesson God teaches most commonly in war is humility. As we consider the peace that must follow the war, as contending sides who have claimed God's blessing try to reestablish a way to live together—an altogether necessary project, given our shrunken globe—we need the watchfulness of Lincoln. He was not content, as he might have been, to cheer his victories. He sought to understand God's victories.

Tim Stafford is a senior writer for Christianity Today magazine. Among his many books is Knowing the Face of God (NavPress).

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