I love teaching Abraham Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address. I taught it today–the last day of my U.S. History to 1865 survey course. When teaching this document I challenge my students–most of them Christians with some interest in theology– to think about Lincoln as a political theologian.
As multiple scholars have noted (my favorite being Ronald White in Lincoln’s Greatest Speech: The Second Inaugural ), Lincoln invoked God in a way that was unlike any other president in American history. Rather than claiming that God was on the side of the victorious North, or promoting some sense of the United States’s divine mission in the world, Lincoln reminded Americans that “the Almighty has his own purposes.” And if God was punishing America for slavery, Lincoln suggested that He was punishing both the North and the South. Both sides were complicit in two hundred and fifty years of slavery.
We wondered together what it would be like for an American president today to explicitly suggest that God may not be “on the side” of the United States. What if an American president were to suggest that God was somehow using a war or some other tragedy to punish the United States for its sins?
Lincoln’s theological understanding of the war also differed from that of most northern clergymen. When teaching the speech I provide my students with lengthy quotes from several of these ministers, including Henry Ward Beecher and Charles Hodge. Men of the cloth used their pulpits to condemn the Confederacy and claim that the war was divine judgment on the South for its involvement in slavery. Lincoln, of course, took a different approach–one defined by humility. Can we really know the will of God on these matters? “The Almighty has his own purposes.”
For anyone who wants to explore these themes further, I recommend, in addition to Ronald White’s book, the pertinent parts of Mark Noll’s America’s God: From Jonathan Edwards to Abraham Lincoln, Harry Stout’s Upon the Alter of the Nation: A Moral History of the Civil War, or Noll, The Civil War as a Theological Crisis.