Friday, March 29, 2013

Lincoln's lesson on humility in faith

Posted By on Fri, Mar 29, 2013 at 11:00 PM

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Somehow it's fitting that Abraham Lincoln, the American political leader who spoke the most eloquently about faith, found himself attacked as an infidel in his lifetime.

The charge came in 1846, when Lincoln was running for Congress against Peter Cartwright, a circuit-riding Methodist minister. Cartwright accused Lincoln of being an atheist and an unbeliever.

Lincoln never directly refuted the charge then or later, when future opponents resurrected it. He refused to do so for at least two reasons. He believed that a person's relationship with God was as private as the terms of a marriage. And he saw his faith, which wavered in times of crisis, as cause for humility rather than boasting.

Nowhere in America's story is this said with greater power than in Lincoln's second inaugural address, delivered just a little more than a month before he was murdered, on Good Friday, 1865. At that time, the Civil War - still the greatest trial in our nation's history - was winding its way to a Union victory.

Lincoln could have used the speech to crow about the triumph, as many Northern politicians wanted him to do. Vice President-elect Andrew Johnson had showed up to the inauguration so drunk that Lincoln had to ask his aides to keep his running mate away from the public.

Lincoln didn't want to celebrate. He wanted his fellow Americans to think humbly about what they had been through. He said that both sides had begun the war convinced that God was on their side and that both had been disappointed.

"Both read the same Bible and pray to the same God, and each invokes His aid against the other. It may seem strange that any men should dare to ask a just God's assistance in wringing their bread from the sweat of other men's faces, but let us judge not, that we be not judged. The prayers of both could not be answered. That of neither has been answered fully. The Almighty has His own purposes," Lincoln said.

Lincoln then said that both sides - all Americans - bore responsibility for the tragedy that was the war.

"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 bondsman'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,'" he said.

Lincoln knew that he was part of something larger than himself. For that reason, he lacked the conviction that he always was right or that virtue always was on his side. He honored God's will as best he could understand it.

One of the most distressing things about modern life is that so many of the voices that dominate discussions of faith today seem to lack Lincoln's humble acknowledgement that he was but an imperfect vehicle for God's will, but instead speak with a strident certainty that that they are always right - that God always is on their side. They look to the Gospels - or the texts in their faith - and see ammunition for ideological combat. They use faith to exclude, to oppress and to humiliate.

Lincoln did not see faith that way. He saw his faith not as a source of certitude, but as a kind of nagging doubt, a prod pushing him to try to determine and do God's will.

One way to do that, Lincoln was convinced, was for human beings to view each other with charity and kindness, regardless of our differences of opinion. It is a lesson we would do well to remember in this most religious of seasons.

"With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation's wounds, to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan, to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations," Abraham Lincoln said.


John Krull is director of Franklin College's Pulliam School of Journalism, host of "No Limits" WFYI 90.1 FM Indianapolis and executive editor of, a news service powered by Franklin College journalism students and faculty.

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John Krull

John Krull

John Krull is director of Franklin College’s Pulliam School of Journalism, host of “No Limits” WFYI 90.1 Indianapolis and publisher of, a news service powered by Franklin College journalism students.

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