It’s ironic that Barack Obama chooses to infuse these opening days of his presidency with the imagery of Abraham Lincoln.
I don’t think there could be two more different men. Understanding why may help us think about what to expect in the days ahead.
Beyond his trademark “change we can believe in,” Mr. Obama’s defining theme has been unity and inclusiveness. “… there’s not a liberal America and a conservative America – there’s the United States of America. … We worship an awesome God in the Blue States … and have gay friends in the Red States.”
Mr. Obama, of course, does not suggest that we don’t have differences. His point is that those differences are not critically important, and they’re getting in our way. Let’s put differences aside, get practical and solve our problems.
The inaugural ceremonies have pastors for everyone: a white evangelical who opposes same sex marriage, a white homosexual, a left-wing black male and a left-wing black female.
His economic stimulus plan has large government expenditures to please Democrats and tax benefits to please Republicans.
Lincoln, too, sought unity. But Lincoln’s notion of where national unity would lie was far different from Obama’s.
He prophetically stated the challenge after accepting the Republican nomination for the presidency in 1858.
“A house divided against itself cannot stand. I believe this government cannot endure half slave and half free. I do not expect the union to be dissolved. I do not expect the House to fall. But I do expect it will cease to be divided. It will become all one thing, or all the other.”
As historian Harry Jaffa points out, ” For Lincoln, as for Jefferson and for all genuine supporters of the principles of the Declaration of Independence, the distinction between right and wrong is antecedent to any form of government and is independent of any man’s or any majority’s will.”
Lincoln knew that some principles are so fundamental they cannot be compromised. He knew that we couldn’t ignore our key differences. Unity could only come from facing them and making the hard choices.
He knew that even though there were competing religious claims on the issue of slavery – some found biblical sanction in it – we would still have to choose and decide who we are.
As Americans killed each other, he observed, “Both read the same Bible and pray to the same God. … The prayers of both could not be answered.”
We have many Americans today who read the same Bible but see the truths that define this country very differently. And, of course, we have Americans who do not see the Bible as relevant to those truths at all and those who would claim that there are no truths.
As Lincoln observed, the prayers of all cannot be answered. Unless we’re resigned to meaninglessness, we must believe that our future will reflect today’s choices.
On the hardest moral dilemma of his day, Abraham Lincoln stepped up to the plate and took a stand. He did not say that it was above his pay grade. And this is what makes Abraham Lincoln very different from Barack Obama.
Each time has its challenges. Americans feel betrayed by what they see as unethical behavior in American business and in Washington. Yet few seem to appreciate that moral problems lie at the root of our faltering economy.
Sanctity of life and sanctity of property are cut from the same cloth of eternal law. In the view of many, including me, it’s this law that defines our free country.
Our new president, who sanctions both abortion and massive government intrusion into our economic lives, sees things very differently.
So let’s not pretend these fundamental differences don’t matter. How we choose will define our future. As Lincoln said, the nation “will become all one thing, or all the other.”