Two hundred years ago on February 12, 1809, Abraham Lincoln was born. While tall for his time at six feet, four inches, his true growth has been in the legacy he has left us as one of our nation's greatest leaders. This is a bicentenntial celebration for which all of us can be most grateful.
When I was thinking and planning for this issue, "The Challenge of Loving Both God and Nation," the life and work of our nation's sixteenth president seemed apropos. What follows are a few comments about the role faith played in his life as he was leading during tumultuous times.
Much has been written about Lincoln's own personal faith in general, as well as how he related to the Christian faith and the institutional church specifically. On the whole, the nature of his religious convictions still remains "a matter of controversy" (Wikipedia Abraham Lincoln and religion
What seems to be apparent is that he was a man who pondered deeply the thoughts and experiences of humanity — including his own rugged and difficult life. He was largely self-educated and read voraciously, including the main book his family had as he was being raised — the Scriptures. Allusions from the Bible are spread throughout much of what he wrote.
Historian Mark Noll, in writing about Lincoln's "unconventional" faith, has tried to find some common threads from Lincoln's life as they relate to faith. He proposes that, over time, Lincoln began to understand God as one who related to the affairs of humanity through the principle of "commanding sovereignty." In facing the tremendous carnage of a terrible Civil War, as well as contentious people of faith claiming that God was exclusively on their side, Lincoln began to see that neither the North nor the South could domesticate God for their own purposes. God was not at a "nation's beck and call" but rather at God's. Noll points especially to what Lincoln said in his Second Inaugural Address
where he speaks of these convictions and uses Matthew 18:7 and Psalm 19:2 as support.1
In November 1863, President Lincoln traveled to Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, four months after a major battle had been fought there in order to dedicate a military cemetery of the fallen. Apparently, historians are not certain that Lincoln included the phrase "under God" in the original written manuscript he used at the dedication: "that this nation, under God
, shall have a new birth of freedom" (italics added). But when the time came to deliver his "Gettysburg Address," he apparently added "under God" extemporaneously.2
If a "new birth" was to occur which would provide the gift of freedom for all, that nation would receive it, not on its own, but from God's own hand.
God and nation. With Lincoln, we all wonder how God and the affairs of our nation relate. But as people of faith, all of us stand firmly tethered both to our God who promises us new life through Christ and to our nation and its ideals and tragic realities. Scripture tells us to honor and obey the authorities which govern us, yet at the same time to "obey God rather than any human authority" when the affairs of daily life conflict with our faith (Acts 5:29, Romans 13:1-7). Scripture also contains a witness to God's sovereignty over heaven and earth and all authorities (e.g., Daniel, esp. 4:17).
In this issue we will try to shed a little light on how these dual loyalties — our primary love for God and deep respect for our nation — play out. You will be able to read the voices of fellow rostered colleagues, as well as laity, speak of the joys and struggles of loving both God and nation.
From our theological heritage, emeritus professor Eric Gritsch starts the conversation by laying out the foundational Lutheran insights of the two kingdoms
through which God rules and under which we Christians live. Cheryl Pero narrates her vocational story of becoming a pastor
, noting the dilemma inherent in both loving one's nation and, at the same time, dealing with the reality of racial injustice. U. S. Congresswoman Lois Capps (through freelancer Jeff Favre) tells us her call story to serve this nation through Congress
. Tom Zulick, who served his country as a marine and later entered the ordained ministry, tells what it has meant for him to wear two "uniforms" in service to God and country
Online exclusives include an article by Luther Institute director James Vigan who lists book titles which will help you better understand the relationship between Christian faith and common public life
and a narrative from Chaplain Gary Garvey who tells his story of becoming a career chaplain
in our nation's armed forces.
One final thought: A close cousin to loving both God and nation is the making of peace. In 1995, the ELCA crafted a social statement on peace. This would be a good time to refresh our memories of the breadth of peacemaking, both God's peace in Christ with the world and the peace Christians strive to share with our neighbors in our nation and around the globe. Read it online at For Peace in God's World
- Mark Noll, "The Puzzling Faith of Abraham Lincoln," January 1, 1992, www.christianitytoday.com/ch/1992/issue33/3311.html
- http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Abraham_Lincoln_and_religion. Endnote 23: William E. Barton, Lincoln at Gettysburg: What He Intended to Say; What He Said; What He was Reported to have Said; What He Wished He had Said (New York: Peter Smith, 1950), pp. 138-139.
William Decker is editor of Lutheran Partners and Lutheran Partners Online, Chicago, Illinois.
This article appeared in the May / June 2009 issue of Lutheran Partners (vol. 25, no. 3).