President-Elect Barack Obama carries a warm place in his heart for Abraham Lincoln. He cites Doris Kearns Goodwin’s excellent Lincoln volume Team of Rivals as an important influence. He has written in Time magazine about him. Obama even intends to use the same Bible as President Lincoln in taking the oath of office.
Why the special affection for “Honest Abe”? It could be their common home state of Illinois. Maybe it lay in Lincoln’s status as one of our greatest Presidents. Regardless, Obama will continue to invoke the words and memory of our 16th President as he blazes his own historic path in the White House.
Obama certainly picked a worthy man. Faced with this nation’s greatest crisis, Lincoln’s firm resolve and eloquent reasoning formed the foundation for the ending of slavery and the preservation of the Union. Our President-Elect, too, faces great (though lesser) difficulties. In these times, will Obama call upon Lincoln’s eloquent tongue and persuasive pen? Shall he hearken back to the former President’s pleas for perseverance in the fight for justice? If President Obama will seek Lincoln as his guide for the current storms, let me humbly suggest one topic upon which to fix his ruminations: the sovereignty of God.
Lincoln’s personal religious beliefs remain the subject of great debate. He fiercely criticized Christianity as a young man. These views undoubtedly softened later in life with some claiming of him a true conversion. Regardless of his personal beliefs, Lincoln’s war-time writings promote rich, deep thought on the subject of God’s control over the world.
Nowhere is this more evident than in the Second Inaugural, given a mere month before the end of the Civil War. Here Lincoln posits the idea that God stands sovereign over both the War and the “Peculiar Institution” that brought it about. Slavery, though a sin, could be “in the Providence of God” and the War given “to both North and South…as the woe due to those by whom the offense [of slavery] came.” Lincoln tackles divine sovereignty at its most trying point: evil and its painful effects on the world. He does not flinch in saying that God is in control both of the evil institution of slavery and the bloody conflict fought over its survival.
Such an assertion could easily lead to a rejection of God as an unjust being, a tyrant dispensing conflicting curses and punishments from His seat in Heaven. Lincoln understands this possibility, asking “shall we discern therein any departure from those divine attributes which the believers in a Living God always ascribe to Him?” In the face of such tragedy, can we really see God as just, a Being worthy of our obedience and praise?
“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 bond-man’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.’”
Carrying the weight of the ravages of the war, staring straight at the guilt incurred from centuries of chattel slavery, Lincoln declares that even if the last four years only began the carnage, the sovereign God and His irrevocable judgments are good and right in their entirety. It is one thing to merely acknowledge God’s power over the events that cause so much suffering in the world. It is quite another to affirm His righteousness in them.
What can these words speak to President Obama? What can they say to us? We do face interesting and difficult times. Our economy continues to spiral into its worst period since the Great Depression. The threat of attack from terrorists seeking our destruction remains a constant possibility. Yet Lincoln’s speech points us to the God who is sovereign over retracting economies and suicide bombers. More than that, the Second Inaugural calls upon us to trust in this sovereign Deity as the righteous judge of the earth.
President Obama would do well to echo these sentiments. As the world’s most powerful leader, to truly call upon God for help acknowledges that all earthly powers must bend the knee to the Lord. He is our ultimate king and our final salvation (Psalm 46). Further, God is the determiner of justice (Genesis 18:25). Therefore, seeking His face should be the priority of anyone pursuing the public good. Finally, President Obama should echo Lincoln’s reverence for the mystery of God’s purposes. God’s ways are infinitely above our own (Isaiah 55:8-9). This understanding should not breed rebellion but humble submission from leader and citizen alike.
The essential claim of President Obama’s message is hope. In these tough times (or anytime), Lincoln’s words point to the only hope America has or has ever had.