Golgotha on the Potomac

by George Anastaplo


The Christian heritage, with a significant but not exclusively Protestant orientation, has long been very much taken for granted in the United States.  That heritage may be detected, for example, among the references to the Divine in the Declaration of Independence.  It may be detected as well in the identification of the Constitution as having been “done in Convention…the Seventeenth Day of September in the Year of our Lord one thousand seven hundred and Eighty seven…”

The First Amendment to the Constitution, with its initial provision that “Congress [should] make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof,” is widely believed to reflect the Founders’ determination to keep religion and politics officially separate in this Country.  But, it should be noticed, the restrictions thus set forth in the First Amendment were not intended to interfere with the then-sporadic State establishments of religion.  It was not until the Twentieth Century that it came to be generally believed that the Fourteenth Amendment (ratified in 1868) made the First Amendment (along with various other Bill of Rights provisions of 1791) applicable to the States.

The Christian heritage (which displays a considerable Judaic influence) has helped shape American citizens generally, including agnostics and atheists.  It can be instructive to notice how much both Roman Catholics and Jews (as well as Protestants) in the United States differ from their counterparts elsewhere.  Distinctively American notions about human dignity and individualism have tended, mostly for the better, to shape those who live in this Country.


The generally steady Christian heritage in North America has had periodic “flare-ups,” very much affecting the life of the day.  These were anticipated by “the Great Awakening” of 1720-1740.  Another such intensification of moral passions was experienced in widespread revival movements in the 1790s and thereafter, evidently contributing to the moral passions that shaped the determined abolitionist movement in the United States.

Prominent in the Eighteenth Century “Great Awakening” was Jonathan Edwards, a New England divine who, in his notable 1741 sermon (“Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God”), insisted upon the need for the typical Christian to be “born again.”  I have had occasion to comment thus on this sermon in my Christian Heritage volume (pp. 399-400):

“Only the Christian revelation [Jonathan Edwards argues] provides reliable guidance to eternal salvation (or, even more compelling, reliable guidance away from perpetual condemnation).  Nature as a guide is repeatedly condemned by Edwards, even though it should have been obvious to him [as a quite learned man] that that is all which may be sensible that much of the human race have ever had to rely on.  Does an emphasis upon this kind of eternal salvation (Niccolo Machiavelli can be understood to have asked) tend to leave decent people poorly equipped to deal, especially politically, with everyday problems requiring foresight, toughness, and so on?  It may even be wondered whether all of this is a poor (even fundamentally unfair) way for things to have been arranged.  Still, it can be argued that one consequence, or effect, of the grim Edwards argument is that it may make it easier for most people to regard human life as intrinsically meaningful.”

In striking juxtaposition to Jonathan Edwards were the reservations about the religious sentiment of the day expressed (later in the Eighteenth Century) by Thomas Paine and Thomas Jefferson, both of whom were studied by thoughtful politicians such as Abraham Lincoln (someone who might have been “turned off” by religious movements which could look back for guidance to preachers who insisted on a Divinity as ferocious as Jonathan Edwards’s God could be portrayed by him to be toward those multitudes not “born again”).

Great awakenings, grounded in religious passions, may be seen from time to time in the history of the United States even down to our day.  Such an “awakening” (somewhat localized)  may be seen, for example, in the Mormon adaptation of Abrahamic (or patriarchic) influences to American conditions.  It may also be seen, perhaps, in the current “Tea Party” response to the unsettling effects of a serious economic recession accompanying undisciplined fears of “terrorism.”


Politically-minded citizens in the United States have always sensed that the religious sentiments of the people need to be treated respectfully.  This is evident in how Abraham Lincoln, who had been something of a freethinker in his youth, could draw more and more upon the religious sentiments of the American people during the Civil War.  His Second Inaugural Address (of 1865) has been hailed as a masterful sermon.

Two decades earlier Lincoln’s youthful freethinking had had to be accounted for by him in the course of a Congressional election campaign in Illinois.  He considered it prudent to issue, on July 31, 1846, a broadside addressed to “the Voters of the Seventh Congressional District.”  His “Fellow Citizens” (who did elect him to Congress in 1846) were addressed by him in this fashion:

“A charge having got into circulation in some of the neighborhoods of this District, in substance that I am an open scoffer at Christianity, I have by the advice of some of my friends concluded to notice the subject in this form.  That I am not a member of any Christian Church, is true; but I have never denied the truth of the Scriptures; and I have never spoken with intentional disrespect of religion in general, or of any denomination of Christians in particular.  It is true that in early life I was inclined to believe in what I understand is called the ‘Doctrine of Necessity’—that is, that the human mind is impelled to action, or held in rest by some power, over which the mind itself has no control; and I have sometimes (with one, two or three, but never publicly) tried to maintain this opinion in argument.  The habit of arguing thus, however, I have entirely left off for more than five years.  And I add here, I have always understood this same opinion to be held by several of the Christian denominations.  The foregoing, is the whole truth, briefly stated, in relation to myself upon this subject.  I do not think I could myself, be brought to support a man for office, whom I knew to be an open enemy of, and scoffer at, religion.  Leaving the higher matter of eternal consequences, between him and his Maker, I still do not think any man has the right thus to insult the feelings, and injure the morals, of the community in which he may live.  If, then, I was guilty of such conduct, I should blame no man who should condemn me for it; but I do blame those, whoever they may be, who falsely put such a charge in circulation against me.”

It is evident from these 1846 remarks that Lincoln had learned to be careful in speaking about matters that might seem to challenge the sacred opinions of one or another church.  And he did consider himself obliged to report that he did not think he could “be brought to support a man for office, whom [he] knew to be an open enemy of, and scoffer at, religion,” particularly since this would “insult the feelings, and injure the morals, of the community in which he may live.”  But he implied, by his acknowledgement that he is not “a member of any Christian Church,” that such aloofness on his part should not be regarded as deliberate disrespect of religion.


After all, it could be argued (but not explicitly by him) that the typical adherent to any one of the numerous Christian sects represented in any Congressional District implicitly rejected all the others.  Thus, a younger Lincoln might have ventured to observe that he did no more than reject only one more sect than did most of his fellow-citizens.  However that may be, he does say that he had “never denied the truth of the Scriptures.”

Of course, some of his 1846 readers may have noticed that he had not, even in this broadside, recognized “the truth of the Scriptures.”  If challenged on this ground, he might well have argued that it would not be “American” to engage in debates about the Scriptures during a political campaign.  However that may have been, it has been noticed by scholars that Lincoln spoke of God often and in many different ways, with at least thirty-three different expressions (like “Almighty Being” and “Father of Mercies”) in his Collected Works.  It has also been noticed that he rarely referred to Jesus, however much he drew on the Christian heritage treasured by his fellow-citizens.

Even so, it should not be surprising if such fellow citizens should eventually see in the career of Lincoln parallels to the career of Jesus himself, beginning with the “frontier” character of the region with which each was originally identified.  Each was also supported by “disciples” personally loyal to their leader, men who found their leader engaging and yet somehow aloof.  And each could be seen to be distinctive in the reading of the sacred texts that he had inherited.


Particularly sacred for Lincoln, of course, was the Declaration of Independence with its foundational recognition (grounded in Christianity?)  that “all Men are created equal.”  It was that recognition which he saw as having been decisive in shaping the prohibition of slavery in the Northwest Ordinance and hence in determining the eventual destiny of the Country.  A Union, thus destined, could be seen by Lincoln as sacred, something that someone as learned as Alexander Stephens (the Vice President of the Confederate States of America) could be puzzled by when he summed up, after the War, the political soul of Abraham Lincoln.

Then, of course, there was the Bible, which Lincoln probably knew as well as any American President ever has.  His own expressions of religious sentiments did culminate in the Second Inaugural Address, reinforcing thereby what he had done a year and a half earlier in the Gettysburg Address.  Thus, Lord Charnwood has observed, “Probably no other speech of a modern statesman uses so unreservedly the language of intense religious feeling.”

The massive sacrifices of the Civil War are thereby made more meaningful.  And Lincoln’s fellow citizens are taught that retribution for dreadful deeds should be expected here on earth, “not only” in an uncertain hereafter.  In this, as in perhaps other critical respects, Lincoln may have been more “Jewish” than “Christian.”


Certainly, he could be “pragmatic” when others preferred to be more “principled.”  This may be seen in his flexibility with respect to the requirements for restoring to “seceded” States full participation in the post-war governance of the Nation.  Especially was this so because the War did establish, once and for all, the existence for all Americans of a Nation, not merely of a Confederacy.

This had been recognized most eloquently by Lincoln in the Gettysburg Address.  Along with this recognition would come the repudiation, also once and for all, of chattel slavery in the United States.  It had been this objective which was implicit in the Republican Party insistence, leading up to the 1860 Election, that there should be henceforth (despite the Dred Scott ruling of 1857) no slavery permitted in the Territories of the Country.

All this meant, among other things, that it did not really matter in 1865 what the status of the rebellious States should be believed to have been at one time or another since 1860.  Lincoln might even have been reminded here of the doctrinal controversies among the Christian sects of his day.  The principle of perpetual union without slavery being well on its way to being decisively established for the United States, partisans could (he indicated) debate to their hearts’ content thereafter what had and had not been, what was and was not needed, in the political formulations of the day.


To what extent, the Lincoln of 1865 might have wondered, had the “Doctrine of Necessity” (referred to in his 1846 broadside) determined the fate of the Country?  There do seem to have been chance events that may have impeded in the United States that movement toward a universal abolition of slavery that had developed during this preceding century in the Western World.  Thus, Great Britain had, in the 1830s, provided for the abolition of slavery in her Western Hemisphere possessions, extending thereby the “reach” of the remarkable decision of  Somerset v. Stewart (1772).

But the massiveness of the slave population in the United States had proved threatening, as had lurid reports of the ferocity of the race wars (of the 1790s and thereafter) in Haiti.  Also troubling, of course, was the dangerously high proportion of persons of African descent in the particular States that led the move to Secession in 1860-1861.  Even so, we can recall, Alexander Stephens (of Georgia) argued vigorously in his own State against Secession.

Chance may be seen as well both in the careers of critical leaders and in the realization of the Good.  How different might things have been—how much more likely might gifted men North and South have been to work things out for a peaceful longterm solution with respect to slavery—if, for example, James Polk had not gotten his Mexican War or if John C. Calhoun had secured the Presidency of the United States for which he had once seemed to be destined?  All this may be still another way of asking whether Lincoln had been sound in his seeming to suggest, in his Second Inaugural Address, that a great civil war had been Providentially ordained.


To ask such a question is again to wonder how the career of Abraham Lincoln (as well as our Christian Heritage) is to be understood.  He himself, facing the challenges and calamities of the Civil War, could speak of significant Providential elements at work.  Is it not natural for a public man, in dreadful circumstances, to look to the most exalted account, of the ordering of the deepest passions, imbedded in the sentiments and language of his people?

Lincoln evidently came to feel, and somehow to believe, that he was an instrument in the hands of a Higher Power.  We, in turn,  are equipped to notice that he, like Moses, could see, but not personally enter, the Promised Land.  By the time Lincoln died he could see both that the War was winding down and that the Thirteenth Amendment (with its abolition of slavery nationwide) was well on its way to ratification.

The pious may be tempted to wonder why Lincoln was not permitted to go all the way with his people.  It may also be wondered by the pious whther he, like Moses, had failed to conduct himself fully as he should have throughout his career, including during the stages leading up to the firing on Fort Sumter.  Perhaps the even more pious observer might intervene here (we have noticed) to suggest that it is not Moses, but Jesus, who provides the decisive model for understanding this man’s career.


That Lincoln should have been struck down on Good Friday can be suggestive.  Did this help raise him up on a pinnacle, matched only (if at all) by the Father of his Country?  He was brought down by a “Roman” blow (underscored by the Sic semper “blessing” uttered by his murderer), thereby turning an Assassination into a Crucifixion, with a theatre (if not even the City of Washington itself) serving as Golgotha.

Something of a Resurrection may be seen in how Lincoln has been raised up by his People.  Thereafter tributes could be paid to him in countless ways, including on the currency of the realm.  His name is encountered everywhere, making it inconsequential, if not even fitting (it could seem), that he no longer has on earth any direct descendants by blood.

A reminder of Abraham Lincoln’s ascendancy, if not his Ascension, may be seen in the Memorial dedicated to him in the Nation’s capital (the cornerstone for which was laid on Lincoln’s birthday in 1915).  This can be regarded as one of the finest Temples in the United States, a sanctuary that continues to inspire Awe in even the most casual visitor.  Is there in all this, some might even be tempted to wonder, still more evidence in support of an exalted “Doctrine of Necessity”?


[These remarks  prepared for an Author Event of the Seminary Cooperative Book Store, Chicago, Illinois, May 13, 2010.  The book discussed on that occasion was George Anastaplo’s The Christian Heritage: Problems and Prospects (with a Foreword by Martin E. Marty), published in 2010 by Lexington Books.  These remarks should serve as the concluding chapter in George Anastaplo, Further Thoughts on Abraham Lincoln:  A Discourse on Chance and the Good.]

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