The Faith of Lincoln

Michael Iachetta
Abraham Lincoln's spiritual beliefs are notoriously difficult to pin down.  It's a source of endless debate for historians trying to reconcile Lincoln's words and actions into a coherent faith.

Tony Kushner, for his part, does not portray the sixteenth president as a religious man at all in his screenplay for the recent blockbuster Lincoln.  Kushner alters the historical record, though, in his one direct reference to Lincoln's faith.

Near the end of the film, Kushner has Lincoln tell his wife that with the war over, he wishes to visit Jerusalem, the place "where David and Solomon walked."  Yet in the original anecdote (which may be apocryphal), Lincoln says to his wife, "We will visit the Holy Land and see those places hallowed by the footstep of the Savior."  There was, he went on to say, "no city on earth he so much desired to see as Jerusalem."  (Some think Lincoln may have heard his secretary of state, William H. Seward, talk about his own 1859 visit to the Holy Land.)

Kushner, who is Jewish, is no friend of the modern state of Israel, so it is not clear why he included this scene in the first place, with its reference to Jerusalem as the city of the ancient kings of Israel.  Yet apparently this was preferable to his hero referring to Jesus, "the Savior."

Nevertheless, deliberately or not, Kushner's screenplay suggests that Lincoln underwent a spiritual shift in the last two years of his life.  Two of Lincoln's most famous speeches bookend the movie, starting with the Gettysburg Address and ending with the Second Inaugural.  In the first speech, Lincoln gives a transcendent meaning to the deaths at Gettysburg (and the Union cause overall) by tying them to the central principles of the American founding: "the proposition that 'all men are created equal'" and "government of the people by the people for the people."  Lincoln alludes to the Declaration of Independence, but not to the Declaration's Creator, who gives rights, nor to the laws of Nature's God upon which the Founders based their right to independence.

By the time of the Second Inaugural, delivered shortly before Lincoln's death, this purely secular meaning is no longer enough.  Only Scripture, Hebrew and Christian, is sufficient to give transcendence to the suffering and purpose of that unutterably horrible war.  Slavery becomes one of those offenses that Jesus said "must needs come."  The 600,000 deaths and countless mutilations of the conflict become "the woe due to those by whom the offense came."  The South's impending defeat is proof that (in the words of the Psalms) that "the judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether."

Yet Lincoln prefaces all his appeals to divine transcendence with a philosophical "if": "If we shall suppose that American slavery is one of those offenses ... and that He gives to both North and South this terrible war."  Lincoln tried to comfort and guide the American people by voicing the possibility, if not the fact, that God was involved in the great tragedy they endured, and the purpose for which they fought.  At this time in our history, and in this season of the birth of Lincoln's "Savior," we might do well to entertain this same possibility.

Abraham Lincoln's spiritual beliefs are notoriously difficult to pin down.  It's a source of endless debate for historians trying to reconcile Lincoln's words and actions into a coherent faith.

Tony Kushner, for his part, does not portray the sixteenth president as a religious man at all in his screenplay for the recent blockbuster Lincoln.  Kushner alters the historical record, though, in his one direct reference to Lincoln's faith.

Near the end of the film, Kushner has Lincoln tell his wife that with the war over, he wishes to visit Jerusalem, the place "where David and Solomon walked."  Yet in the original anecdote (which may be apocryphal), Lincoln says to his wife, "We will visit the Holy Land and see those places hallowed by the footstep of the Savior."  There was, he went on to say, "no city on earth he so much desired to see as Jerusalem."  (Some think Lincoln may have heard his secretary of state, William H. Seward, talk about his own 1859 visit to the Holy Land.)

Kushner, who is Jewish, is no friend of the modern state of Israel, so it is not clear why he included this scene in the first place, with its reference to Jerusalem as the city of the ancient kings of Israel.  Yet apparently this was preferable to his hero referring to Jesus, "the Savior."

Nevertheless, deliberately or not, Kushner's screenplay suggests that Lincoln underwent a spiritual shift in the last two years of his life.  Two of Lincoln's most famous speeches bookend the movie, starting with the Gettysburg Address and ending with the Second Inaugural.  In the first speech, Lincoln gives a transcendent meaning to the deaths at Gettysburg (and the Union cause overall) by tying them to the central principles of the American founding: "the proposition that 'all men are created equal'" and "government of the people by the people for the people."  Lincoln alludes to the Declaration of Independence, but not to the Declaration's Creator, who gives rights, nor to the laws of Nature's God upon which the Founders based their right to independence.

By the time of the Second Inaugural, delivered shortly before Lincoln's death, this purely secular meaning is no longer enough.  Only Scripture, Hebrew and Christian, is sufficient to give transcendence to the suffering and purpose of that unutterably horrible war.  Slavery becomes one of those offenses that Jesus said "must needs come."  The 600,000 deaths and countless mutilations of the conflict become "the woe due to those by whom the offense came."  The South's impending defeat is proof that (in the words of the Psalms) that "the judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether."

Yet Lincoln prefaces all his appeals to divine transcendence with a philosophical "if": "If we shall suppose that American slavery is one of those offenses ... and that He gives to both North and South this terrible war."  Lincoln tried to comfort and guide the American people by voicing the possibility, if not the fact, that God was involved in the great tragedy they endured, and the purpose for which they fought.  At this time in our history, and in this season of the birth of Lincoln's "Savior," we might do well to entertain this same possibility.