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Morel. Lincoln's Sacred Effort: Defining Religion's Role in
American Self-Government. Lanham, Md.: Lexington Books, 2000.
"Exactly what role did Lincoln believe public piety should play in republican government?" This is a question that political scientist Lucas E. Morel contends has seldom been adequately examined, and his attempt to answer it distinguishes Lincoln's Sacred Effort from other "Lincoln and Religion" studies (12). Morel suggests that Abraham Lincoln has much to teach us about the proper relationship between religion and free government—that in Lincoln's public acts and pronouncements can be found the practical application of an optimal model for how political leaders should treat religion in free societies.
This work's first incarnation was as a Claremont doctoral dissertation. And Morel builds his case, as befits a scholar in the mold of Harry V. Jaffa, through close textual analysis of Lincoln's oft-studied words. Yet his query into the proper role of religion in free government affords a fresh perspective from which to reexamine the familiar chestnuts of the Lincoln canon. A brief, effective introduction foreshadows the book's five chapters, which together weave a Lincolnesque tapestry of political instruction, and separately can be savored as stand-alone commentaries on many of Lincoln's more important writings. Interpretations of the 1838 Lyceum Speech, the Gettysburg Address, and the First Inaugural Address highlight the chapter "The Political Utility of Religion." The 1846 "Handbill Replying to Charges of Infidelity" and several wartime edicts and pronouncements constitute the basis for a chapter on "The Political Accommodation of Religion." "The Political Vices of Religion" focuses on the 1842 Temperance Address. The final chapter, "The Political Limits of Reason and Religion," is a lengthy disquisition on the Second Inaugural Address. These prominently featured pieces are not the only Lincoln writings Morel employs, however. He knowledgeably consults the full corpus of Page [End Page 79] Lincoln materials—though for the most part he sticks to the Collected Works and gives considerably less prominence than have some scholars to Lincoln's "recollected words." No doubt, this is because Morel is not overly concerned with divining the exact nature or extent of Lincoln's personal religiosity (a question that relies heavily on what other people remembered Lincoln having said).
Among the principles that Morel distills from Lincoln's words and actions is that passion and self-interest are intrinsic to the human condition and, if unchecked, will destroy attempts at free government. Lincoln identified human reason as one restraint on these pernicious tendencies. Another was revelatory religion—its teachings and institutions. Lincoln (as did Washington, Jefferson, and others) sanctioned religion's political utility in cultivating a social ethos of self-discipline and selflessness. These traits were deemed prerequisites for a "moral" citizenry capable of self-government. Lincoln recognized, however, destructive authoritarian proclivities in both religion and the reasoned exercise of governmental power. Statesmen must, as did Lincoln, interject humility into public discourse, thereby tempering the perfectionist zeal and expectations of those who see either religion or government as instruments for perfecting society.
Morel goes farther, contending that Lincoln acknowledged for religion an importance beyond political utility. Morel's Lincoln considered both religion and free government as means to the same end—the end being the individual happiness and well-being of people. Hence, he treated religion as co-equal to government and deserving of at least equal respect. The burden of Morel's book, then, is to show that Lincoln not only recognized and adroitly practiced the political uses of religion, but that he also recognized and respected religion for its own sake—for a role beyond its political utility—and hence accommodated and protected it in the public arena. It is the second of these propositions—that Lincoln perceived religion's role in providing for the welfare and happiness of individuals—that poses Morel's biggest challenge, for he insists the case can be made without having to discern Lincoln's personal religious beliefs.
Introducing the topic of the political utility of religion, Morel poses the overriding question: "exactly how did [Lincoln] understand religion to benefit a government based on the consent of the governed?" (23). Beginning with the 1838 Lyceum Speech, Morel sees Lincoln casting religion in a "supporting role" to reason as key Page [End Page 80] elements in preserving free republics. Though reason is Lincoln's "primary guide" for the public mind, religion is also important, for it promotes "law abidingness." Lincoln speaks of strict obedience to law as a "political religion" in the sense that "conscientious observance" produces a "religious semblance" (30). Just as ministers and priests teach "church folk to be good and obey the law" (43–44), so, too, must the leader of government become the people's "political preacher" (31). At Gettysburg, Morel sees in Lincoln the "political preacher" par excellence. He chides Garry Wills (Lincoln at Gettysburg: Words that Remade America, 1992) for giving insufficient attention to the biblical elements of the Gettysburg Address, elements that in Morel's view make the Address an unmistakable "appeal to the nation's revealed religion to invigorate the nation's civil religion" (44). Morel finds Lincoln speaking even more explicitly in the First Inaugural Address. "Intelligence, patriotism, Christianity, and a firm reliance on Him, who has never yet forsaken this favored land," declares Lincoln on the eve of civil war, "are still competent to adjust, in the best way, all our present difficulty." Morel reads this and other phrases as indicative of Lincoln's belief that "the natural and the supernatural, one's worldly intellect and otherworldly faith" are "proven and divinely ordained means of solving the nation's problems" (62).
This is not to say that people can abdicate their responsibility to exercise their heavenly endowed gift of reason while striving to implement God's will. In editing Seward's closing sentences to the First Inaugural, Lincoln placed "the burden of America's prosperity not upon divine intervention but with the will of each soul who hears or reads his speech" (65). Indeed, Morel observes that Lincoln laid "great stress on godly confirmation of the dictates of human reason" (68). While never "categorically equat[ing] popular opinion with the will of God" (59)—a view espoused by Jacksonian Romantics such as George Bancroft—Lincoln nevertheless identified the collective judgment of the American people as a potential instrument of God's will. Morel's Lincoln believed "that a God of truth and justice will avail himself of human agency to accomplish His purposes as those same humans act according to their understanding of what His truth and justice is" (57). Though Lincoln "made frequent reference to providence as an immanent guide to 'this-worldly' human action" (56–57), Morel finds him instructively humble about the certitude of discernment. Yet Morel warns that one should not exaggerate Lincoln's uncertainty over God's will. "At a minimum Lincoln understood that God expected civil Page [End Page 81] societies to pursue justice," Morel asserts (68, note 139). In the end, it is the exercise of reason in hope of Divine approbation that remains primary in Lincoln's calculus, with religion's chief benefit to free government being the inculcation of "law abidingness."
Readers of this Journal will recognize from Morel's article, "Lincoln among the Reformers: Tempering the Temperance Movement" (Winter 1999), the gist of the argument he makes in the chapter entitled "The Political Vices of Religion." Indeed, Lincoln recognized a downside to religion's influence in the political sphere—"the dangers of bringing a primarily theological understanding of a moral issue into the public arena" (144). Morel sees this exhibited in the ambivalence Lincoln displayed toward the reform movements of his day, as expressed in the 1842 Temperance Address and elsewhere. Morel bases Lincoln's ambivalence on an underlying fear that religiously sanctioned prescriptions cloak social reform in theocratic moral certitudes that quash open discussion, harden public discourse, and are ultimately unpersuasive in inducing a change in behavior. Morel's Lincoln recognized that "self-government required a citizenry that trusted one another and was able to compromise politically without gainsaying the motives or patriotism of others" (149). Religion-induced self-righteousness impedes such trust.
Irony abounds. Lincoln may well have "never turned his personal habits regarding alcohol into a public campaign for the prohibition of the liquor traffic" (150), but can the same be said for slavery? True, he never condemned slaveholders or Southerners without also implicating Northerners in the national sin of slavery. And he consistently condemned slavery as a wrong without relying on the authority of revealed religion through biblical exegesis. Yet the sensitivity that Morel detects in Lincoln to religiously based claims of moral absolutes as a potential danger to unimpassioned democratic dialogue takes on rich irony when one remembers Stephen Douglas's bitter denunciations of Lincoln for poisoning political discourse with the moral elements of abolitionism in the years preceding the Civil War. Douglas and his followers singularly failed to discern fine distinctions between moral positions sanctified by the secular scripture of the Declaration of Independence [Lincoln] or moral positions sanctified by the theocratic scripture of revealed religion [Christian abolitionists]. For Douglas Democrats the result in either case was the same—the very breakdown and failure of civil political discourse that Morel asserts Lincoln feared. Page [End Page 82]
That failure and the resulting war required of Lincoln a final reckoning that drew from deep within him what Morel proclaims to be the "peak of his rhetorical expression" (rivaled only by the Gettysburg Address in "argument and eloquence") (164), and what Frederick Douglass at the time deemed "a sacred effort"—Lincoln's four-paragraph Second Inaugural Address. In a 49–page dissection of America's second shortest presidential Inaugural Address (Washington's second was two paragraphs), Morel minutely examines what he considers Lincoln's "most profound statement regarding reason and religion in politics" and discovers therein Lincoln's acknowledgment that America had failed "to resolve the conflict using reason or religion" (162). "What elevates this speech above the Gettysburg Address is its focus on the will of God in discussing the fate of the Union," Morel declares (164). But whereas historians such as Mark Noll and Allen Guelzo linger over the theological profundity of Lincoln's understanding of God's providence, and Ronald C. White, Jr., dwells on Lincoln's growing cognizance of God's intervention in history, Morel focuses his appreciative eye on the subtle political uses to which Lincoln applied theological insight. "Because both North and South interpreted the war theologically," Morel explains, "Lincoln used the religious conviction in his listeners as a rhetorical premise to offer a biblical interpretation for the prolonged nature of the war." With an eye squarely on the challenges of Reconstruction, Lincoln deftly suggested an interpretation "that unites their judgement of God's hand in the Civil War as well as their guilt before that same God's judgment" (198).
Of course, Morel is not alone in acclaiming Lincoln's aptitude for wedding religious sentiment to political purpose. Recently, for example, John Patrick Diggins has lauded Lincoln for "bring[ing] religion into the liberal consensus" (On Hallowed Ground: Abraham Lincoln and the Foundations of American History, 2000). And historians have long noted, as Allen Guelzo writes in Redeemer President, that Lincoln conceded religion's importance "in providing the self-restraint and moral discipline needed to keep liberal societies from disintegrating into mere hedonism." Morel's Lincoln, however, saw more than mere political utility in religion.
In perhaps his most thought-provoking chapter, Morel argues that Lincoln as president proactively accommodated religion. He felt that religiously derived feelings should be "immune from public insult," Morel contends, and that "the 'morals' fostered by the religious sentiments of the community" should be guarded "from Page [End Page 83] public 'injury'" (90–91). Lincoln, says Morel, understood the right to worship as "an ordinary right of citizenship" that deserved government protection "as much as any other right." He sees exhibited in Lincoln's words and actions a belief that "[r]eligious liberty should ... not be singled out for extraordinary precaution by the government, and thus forced to pass an additional threshold for its lawful exercise" (104). Thus, among other things, Lincoln approved orders for Sabbath observance in the army, promoted Christian missionary work among Indians, directed the appointment of hospital chaplains, and authorized various Executive Proclamations declaring national days of fasting, thanksgiving, and prayer. "Americans," Morel states, "remember him so fondly to this day precisely because Lincoln's practice of civil religion as president accomplished political objectives without interfering with the public's pursuit of religious ones. He showed Americans how to bring their religion with them into the public arena without embroiling the country in theological disputes" (95). Ultimately, Lincoln promoted the "protection of religious liberty for its own sake, for the spiritual well-being of the citizenry" (86).
Why are such words and acts not, what Guelzo terms, simply the "polite encouragement of public religious gestures" and the mere "repetitious citations of Scripture" customary of "any conscientious Whig" or "canny politician" of Lincoln's time? Such were the "veiled suggestions" made among many of Lincoln's contemporaries—friends and enemies alike. And they are echoed in the work of scholars such as Garry Wills (Under God: Religion and American Politics, 1990), who perceive Lincoln as disingenuously preying on emotion in the public use of religion. Some (Guelzo, for example) have solved the problem of Lincoln's public sincerity by looking to the "inner man" to find why Lincoln "had reason to feel even more keenly than most of his contemporaries the need to reach some form of religious plateau" (in the case of Guelzo's Lincoln, it was the intersection of Whig ideology's demand for moral appearances and a deeper personal conflict over inherited Calvinistic sentiments about the nature of God and man). Yet, in structuring his query as one of applied political theory, Morel explicitly attempts to sidestep the vexing question of Lincoln's personal religious beliefs—a speculative topic that he says "has distracted scholars from a more rigorous examination of the ends for which he used religious imagery and appealed to religious sentiment ..." He states that Lincoln's personal religion is simply unknowable— Page [End Page 84] that his beliefs and their "relation to his public speeches and actions remain veiled" (12).
Protestations to the contrary notwithstanding, however, there seems to be in Morel's interpretation a tacit assumption that the religiosity in Lincoln's rhetoric, on some level, had to have been grounded in a fundamental belief—or at least in a suspension of disbelief—in the reality of a supernatural dimension to human existence. Morel states flatly, for example, that it is wrong to assume, as does Wills, that Lincoln "could not have believed his public statements regarding God and religion" (99). And it is telling that in introducing the chapter on Lincoln's accommodation of religion, for one of the few times in his study, Morel, like the historians of Lincoln's religion, resorts to using "recollected" words rather than a verifiable Lincoln text when he quotes from the memory of Lincoln's close friend, Joshua Speed (rendered twenty years after the fact) to the effect that Lincoln had "come a long way from his early days of religious skepticism'" (85). Indeed, without an assumption regarding a modicum of religious sincerity on Lincoln's part, it would be hard to accept Morel's essential point that Lincoln acknowledged "personal attention to spiritual needs" as holding "the greatest possibility for man's greatest happiness and fulfillment" (210), and hence religion was entitled, as was self-government, to protection and encouragement.
Morel may not explicitly avow Lincoln's belief in religion, but he spares nothing in illuminating Lincoln's ingenuous use of Scripture. Facilitated by his own felicity with Holy Scripture, Morel plumbs to new depths Lincoln's astounding affinity for scriptural allusions, and raises to new heights one's respect for Lincoln's familiarity with the Bible. Sometimes, however, Morel's deep reading of Lincoln texts can seem strained, occasionally placing too much weight on slender reeds. For example, in looking for evidence that Lincoln knowingly alluded to Psalms 90:10 in the famous opening words to the Gettysburg Address, he cites a November 21, 1864, letter from Lincoln to John Phillips, a letter that Michael Burlingame argues was actually written by Lincoln's assistant secretary, John Hay—a point noted without disputation by Morel (45 and note 68).
Morel's book is in keeping with the temper of several other recent Lincoln-related studies that take issue with a view of Lincoln as an essentially passive, reactive politician who had no clearly conceived agenda or ideology. David Herbert Donald, in LincolnPage [End Page 85] (1995), espoused this interpretation, taking Lincoln at his word that "his policy was to have no policy." Instead, Morel searches for deeper moral meanings behind the carefully weighed and measured words of an astute and worldly practitioner of law and politics. Morel's insistence that Lincoln found a higher moral end for government and religion resonates with Stewart Winger's discovery of moral meaning behind the Lincolnian ideology of "the Right to Rise" ("Lincoln's Economics and the American Dream: A Reappraisal," Journal of the Abraham Lincoln Association, Winter 2001). Whereas Morel perceives in Lincoln's quest for union and the preservation of republican self-government a quest for the happiness and moral fulfillment of all men and women (a goal equally sustained by revealed religion), Winger discerns in Lincoln's Romantic ante-bellum "self-reliant" ethos a quest for "moral autonomy" afforded through self-earned economic independence—an almost Puritan sense of a "calling" in one's work conducive to a "moral independence" of infinite worth beyond the mere acquisition of material wealth.
Allen Guelzo, who views Lincoln as a child of the Lockean Enlightenment, may take issue with Winger's interpretation of Lincoln as reflective of Antebellum American Romanticism. And he is not sure that Lincoln was as oblivious, as Winger and others may think, to the imminent ascendancy of a permanent wage-labor system (and all that it implied) in post-war industrialized America. Nevertheless, Guelzo, as does Winger and Morel, sees conscious moral purposefulness in Lincoln, including his political uses of religion. Guelzo's Lincoln, however, accommodates religion on a deeper personal level—a level where Morel is reluctant to go. The religion of Guelzo's Lincoln brings no happiness or spiritual fulfillment, only resignation and the resolution to persist. His personal religion surfaces in public life only in the sense that it was the driving force of an inner conviction that sustained the Union's wartime president (as revealed in the Second Inaugural Address). Guelzo's relatively self-absorbed Lincoln seems not to consciously contemplate theories of religion's role beyond supporting the American political regime of self-government. To the extent Lincoln's government publicly accommodated religion, it seemed to be simply a by-product of the political alliance between the secular and evangelical wings of the Republican party. Steering a course of neutrality between sects, and directing reminders to Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton and others to keep government out of ecclesiastical administrative matters, seemed to be the most that Lincoln be- Page [End Page 86] stirred himself over theoretical relationships between religion and politics. Nevertheless, Guelzo, Winger, and Morel all share visions of a Lincoln more ideologically directed and purposeful than Donald's Lincoln. And Morel looks beyond the others, perceiving in Lincoln's actions and rhetoric a clearly conceived understanding of religion's role in securing the happiness and self-fulfillment of the state's citizens.
Morel contends that in free societies people with religious beliefs (or moral beliefs based on some other code of ethics) face duel obligations that are of equal import and are equally deserving of allegiance—one to free government, one to religious principles. For individuals and for society this can create a complicated and sometimes tense reciprocal relationship between the two. Mediating this inherent tension between dual allegiances is an endemic challenge for political leaders in free-government systems. Morel suggests that the manner in which Lincoln successfully walked this tightrope is worthy of emulation. Indeed, as president, Lincoln walked many tightropes suspended between contending social, cultural, and political ideas: he successfully placated political factions within the fractious Republican party; he maintained a disparate political and social coalition in support of prosecuting the war; he orchestrated bitterly conflicting social and cultural sentiments over emancipation and race relations in a manner that prevented such conflicts from derailing the Northern war effort and that paved the way for the ultimate abolition of slavery.
All were incredible feats of statesmanship. Morel's book suggests that historians should add to this list of Lincoln's impressive balancing acts the manner in which he "charts a course for the country between the political paralysis of pious resignation and the jeremiads of the self-righteous" (62). Morel cites the Second Inaugural Address as one of Lincoln's finest rhetorical examples of mediating with respect between the religious and the secular: "He presents an interpretation of the war from a disinterested viewpoint, 'the believers in a Living God,' and assumes a non-religious perspective to "discern" the validity of a biblical interpretation of the Civil War as God's just vengeance" (200). Adeptly handling an often disputatious religious community, and diffusing tensions between equally legitimate claims to devotion from both religion and free government, Lincoln weathered a test of political statesmanship every bit as complex and difficult as any he faced. "The statesman's art," Morel explains, "lies in the ability to inform public discourse along both rational and religious lines while tempering the Page [End Page 87] excesses following from either rational self-sufficiency or religious fanaticism" (210). This, indeed, is a balancing act with continued relevance and immediacy for today's leaders.
Historians may quibble that Morel's depiction of Lincoln's ideas about religion and government is overly static. That is, there is little sense of evolution or change in Lincoln's thinking over time. Morel mixes insights gleaned from speeches and statements often without any particular regard to chronological order. The intervening span between some of the Lincoln writings he conjunctively examines is as much as twenty-five years. In discerning the nature and character of Lincoln's uses of religion for political utility, for example, Morel analyzes the Lyceum Speech (1838), the Gettysburg Address (1863), and the First Inaugural Address (1861)—in that order, frequently throwing in perceptive observations from other chronologically interspersed Lincoln writings (chapter 2). As a political scientist using a historical case-study to construct an instructive model for integrating religion and government in free societies, Morel perhaps need not be overly concerned about possible evolutionary dimensions to Lincoln's thought. Indeed, the political validity or practical utility of his model for the instruction of contemporary political leaders does not hinge on whether Morel accurately discerned the historical Lincoln's actual conscious application of the model at any particular point in time.
The degree of Lincoln's self-understanding of the model Morel constructs from his public life is of more importance to the historian and biographer than to the political scientist. Historians are charged with discerning as accurately as possible the state of mind of historical subjects at particular points in time, so as to ascertain the effect of experience and historical agents over time. Morel's sometimes-static social science approach to the Lincoln texts, therefore, complicates and potentially compromises the degree to which historical conclusions regarding Lincoln can be drawn on the basis of Morel's analysis.
The absence of chronological discipline characteristic of many "historically" based social science or social theory models (including those imposed by many of today's historians) poses the question: What came first—the model or the interpretative analysis? Here, was the model extracted from a careful study of Lincoln's writings, or was the model imposed as an interpretive tool—a prism through which to filter Lincoln's writings? Put more directly, did the research drive the model, or did the model drive the research? Perhaps the ideal historical test for Morel's book would be Page [End Page 88] something like this: If Lincoln had been asked, as an intellectual exercise, to write a primer for political leaders on the proper role of religion in the governing of a free society, would the result have resembled Morel's interpretation? The answer is perhaps as unknowable as Lincoln's personal religious sentiments, if for no other reason than there is no assurance that Lincoln ever thought of or considered the question in these terms.
Ultimately, the lessons that Morel draws from Lincoln, particularly the express political accommodation of religion as a normative model of governance, may seem provocative to some readers, given the lack of consensus in contemporary America regarding many church-state issues. We should never underestimate the diversity of religious opinion in Lincoln's America, but one must wonder whether a politician today, in a country where Christianity's historical cultural hegemony has receded significantly since Lincoln's time, could ever find sufficient commonality within the nation's religious subcultures (and religion-intolerant subcultures) to politically accommodate religious faith in the public arena to the degree Lincoln did. Morel acknowledges the problem, at one point quoting George Anastaplo (another Jaffa protégé): "One must wonder what it is that the contemporary statesman has to draw upon comparable to the materials Lincoln had at hand in the Declaration of Independence, in Shakespeare, and in the Bible" (94, note 35). The texts and symbols of today's popular culture may not be amenable for political usage in the same universal sense that the Bible was in Lincoln's America. And recent public opinion polls show that Americans remain wary of religion in the political arena, and are inclined to think that politicians who make religious allusions are "just saying what people want to hear." Still, the same polls reveal that most Americans see religion as the best way to strengthen moral behavior and family values—that is to say, most Americans still see, as did Lincoln, a political utility in religion. Though it is not clear Americans would tolerate the same degree of political accommodation of religion as was practiced in the shadow of Morel's Lincoln during the mid-nineteenth century, it may still be possible for a gifted modern Lincoln to make a persuasive case for the importance of revealed religion's role in supporting and informing the "civil religion" of the land.
In the final assessment, Morel makes a cogent argument for a political model of equal respect for religion and government in free societies: "Reason or prudence remains the ruling principle [for a] republic, guiding deliberation among the citizens and their govern- Page [End Page 89] ment, but it must allow the rightful exercise and, hence, influence of religion" (210). One wishes that Lincoln had expressly stated the axiom Morel infers he instinctively sensed: "[A] nation that governs itself under the auspices of God governs with an awareness that not all things are allowed" (7). Irrespective of whether Lincoln was a conscious architect or only an unconscious practitioner of the model, Morel documents how his public life can be intelligently interpreted to support the proposition that politics "must respect religion's, which means God's, claim on the citizenry," and that "religion should be left to its own devices and not be bothered by the government to any greater degree than the public at large" (113). Furthermore (reservations about a static approach aside), Morel provides a plausible synopsis of what may well have actually been Lincoln's general attitude and thinking by the end of his life on the role of religion in a system of free government—that "the happiness of a people cannot be pursued without a due protection and encouragement of their religion" (210). The work is erudite and stimulating. If it is not the book that Lincoln would have written on the subject, no one has yet ghostwritten a better one. Page [End Page 90]