On Tuesday of this week we should have commemorated the birthday of Abraham Lincoln. I spent the day working on an article, since posted on my blog, reflecting on the profound acknowledgment of God’s authority Lincoln bequeathed to the nation in the words of his Second Inaugural Address. I refer, of course, to the famous passage in which Lincoln spoke on the supposition
“… that American slavery is one of those offenses which, in the providence of God, must needs come, … and that He gives to both North and South this terrible war as the woe due to those by whom the offense came. … Yet if God wills that it continue … as was said three thousand years ago, so still it must be said ‘the judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether.'”
Tragically for us, though the political spokesmen of our day mention God when it suits their purposes, they never accept the simple logic of God’s authority, as Lincoln did. Their lip-service inevitably reveals their abandonment of the stark premise of true reverence Christ left to us in his prayer to God in the Garden of Gethsemane: “Not my will but thine be done.” In contrast with Lincoln, the words of our un-statesmanlike politicians always betray the fact that they regard human will as the only real judge, the ultimate arbiter of human affairs.
We see this in Barack Obama’s peculiarly deceitful description of citizenship in the peroration of his State of the Union Address this week:
“… as Americans we all share the same proud title: We are citizens. It’s a word that doesn’t just describe our nationality or legal status. It describes the way we’re made. It describes what we believe. It captures the enduring idea that this country only works when we accept certain obligations to one another and to future generations; that our rights are wrapped up in the rights of others; and that well into our third century as a nation, it remains the task of us all, as citizens of these United States, to be the authors of the next great chapter in our American story.”
Obama has refused to deal candidly with the question of citizenship as it arises in the constitutional provision that raises questions about his own tenure as president of the United States. So it’s more than ironic that Obama should purport to speak as an authority on the meaning of the term. However, he slyly addresses the controversy when he says that the word “citizen” “doesn’t just describe our nationality or legal status. It describes the way we’re made.” In fact, “nature” is the word that refers to the way we are made, not “citizen.” Citizenship is ordinarily an artifact of human law. But according to the Declaration of Independence, the document that declares “what we believe” as Americans, not human law but “the laws of nature and of nature’s God” prescribe the way that we are made. Our rights, therefore, do not arise merely from “obligations to one another and to future generations” but from our obligation to the Creator, whose will has determined the right ordering of our natural and reciprocal human relationships. Nor are our rights simply “wrapped up in the rights of others.” They derive from the debt that, in our very being, we owe to God, who is the transcendent source of the law that supersedes the artifacts of human will.
Contrary to Obama’s vainglorious description of citizenship, our country only works when we acknowledge this debt to God and act accordingly. When we do so, we lift up Christ’s prayer in the Garden. Then God, who is the author of our nature, becomes as well the author of our history, which can in consequence reflect the blessings entailed by the provisions for our good, which He has made, and is always making, in and through the benevolent will by which He creates us.
In this respect, America is obviously not working now. In his response to Obama, Marco Rubio wants us to believe that it’s all Obama’s fault. But when Rubio says that “every life, at every stage, is precious” and that “everyone everywhere has a God-given right to go as far as their talents and hard work will take them,” do his words acknowledge the authority of God any more accurately than Obama’s? Does someone with a talent for war have the right to use that talent to tyrannize over others? Do people with a talent for persuasion have the right to persuade someone else’s spouse to make love to them? Do people with a talent for business have the right to amass for themselves all the wealth their talent can bring, no matter if others are left to starve in their wake?
Is there no stage of life when the path of wickedness and deliberate iniquity deserves, as the Psalmist says, utter destruction (Psalm 1:6)? How precious is the life of those who adamantly insist upon taking that path? Does God-endowed right give license to go farther than what is right, as God determines it? Marco Rubio’s words allude to God as the source of right, but they seem to deny that God’s authority limits the actions human beings may take in the name of right (thus “having the form of godliness, but denying the power thereof” – 2 Timothy 3:5). This denial of God’s authority may be the reason Rubio thinks that the issue of life “is a fundamental issue” but “not a political issue” and that “it’s not about denying anybody the right to do anything … they want with their bodies or with their lives.”
But from the beginning, America has adhered to an understanding of fundamental rights that acknowledges the authority of the Creator as the source and basis for the claim of right. Unalienable rights are endowed (that is, filled with content, substantiated) by His will, and therefore He sets the terms for their existence. It is because unalienable human rights originate in the Creator’s will that the summarizing aim of just government is “to secure these rights.” Though Rubio’s incoherent statements imply the contrary, respect for God’s authority over human right and justice is not just a personal ideal. It is the fundamental political issue of America’s national political life. Until we restore that respect, can we expect God’s blessing? Or, should we expect, as Lincoln observed, the woe Christ assigns to those “by whom the offence cometh” (Matthew 18:7), in whatever form it takes for us?