Commenting on Barack Obama’s remarkable speech on race, Charles Kaiser says,
If Obama is elected president, it will be because he has been the first candidate in many years to try to appeal to what is best in America: “What is called for is nothing more, and nothing less, than what all the world’s great religions demand—that we do unto others as we would have them do unto us. Let us be our brother’s keeper, scripture tells us. Let us be our sister’s keeper. Let us find that common stake we all have in one another, and let our politics reflect that spirit as well.” Unlike the approach of every Republican candidate for president, that is a perfect example of the way religion should be used in American politics.
In Obama’s words today, you could hear the mystic chords of memory—an echo of the words of another man from Illinois with humble origins who understood the proper role of religion in politics. The spirit Obama embodied today was the same one Abraham Lincoln evoked in the peroration of his greatest speech in 1865:
“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.”
Well put, Mr. Kaiser. However, in Lincoln’s second inaugural address, just before he got to the “with malice toward none” bit quoted above, he had something else to say. As the Civil War approached its close, here are the words–almost inconceivable today in their eloquent bluntness–with which the American president dared to combine religion and race:
The Almighty has His own purposes. “Woe unto the world because of offenses; for it must needs be that offenses come, but woe to that man by whom the offense cometh.” If we shall suppose that American slavery is one of those offenses which, in the providence of God, must needs come, but which, having continued through His appointed time, He now wills to remove, and that He gives to both North and South this terrible war as the woe due to those by whom the offense came, shall we discern therein any departure from those divine attributes which the believers in a living God always ascribe to Him? 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.”
“God damn America,” indeed. It strikes me that old Abe was in some ways closer to Reverend Wright than to Obama–praiseworthy, thought-provoking, and indeed groundbreaking though Barack’s speech was.
To be fair, Lincoln made clear that he hoped God wouldn’t damn America, and the out-of-context snippets from Wright’s speeches we’re being bombarded with don’t make that clear (not that that proves anything one way or the other about Wright). Nonetheless, Lincoln said explicitly that if God did damn, or more precisely curse, America, in the cruelest possible way, that it would be just. More–that perhaps he was already doing so, in the form of the war that cost more American lives than any other. And that the North’s own centuries-long complicity in slavery and benefit from the wealth it extracted meant that the North, too, was liable to God’s justice. Had the North not had slavery, and then, after slowly abolishing it, kept the Southern slave system alive through its political acquiescence? Had Northern mills not woven Southern cotton? Does our economy not today rest in no small part on the backs of our own black and brown grunt laborers and on the cheap products of overseas sweatshops? Does it not further depend on the colossally murderous gunboat diplomacy to which Wright made such maligned mention, whereby countries around the world are kept open to American trade and business at the point of a knife?
I wonder what outcry must have greeted Lincoln, or would have had he confronted an American populace like the one of today. “He’s taking political correctness to a new extreme! Slavery isn’t my fault–I’m a Northerner and can’t even own slaves. Why should I be punished for it?”
He gives to both North and South this terrible war.
If God wills that it continue until every drop of blood drawn with the lash shall be paid by another drawn with the sword…
the judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether.
These words are carved into the Lincoln Monument. They should be seared into the nation’s soul as a protection against the stupendous denial of collective responsibility into which we have fallen--and the vicious anger that greets any attempt to break through it.