Culture At Large

God, Lincoln, and the Civil War

Andy Rau

Interesting overview at Slate of several recent books about Abraham Lincoln and the religious worldview that drove his life and presidency.

The religious question people seem most eager to ask about historical figures like Lincoln is whether or not they were orthodox Christians. But the emerging consensus is that Lincoln can't be fit easily into either side of the "culture wars." The essay paints a picture of Lincoln as a complex character who struggled to understand God's role in the Civil War:

[Historian Richard] Carwardine puts heavy emphasis on Lincoln's short "Meditation on God's Will," a theological fragment that Lincoln wrote for his own edification, probably in 1862 (the title was later supplied by his secretary, John Nicolay). In this private document Lincoln applied his famous logical rigor to the issue of God's purposes in permitting a gruesome Civil War. Had God's reasons matched those of the North—extinguishing the rebellion and restoring the Union, in Lincoln's view—it would have been easy for God to enlist his "human instrumentalities" (like the president) to defeat the Southern armies. But God obviously desired that the war "shall not end yet." He plainly had his reasons for letting the butchery continue, but he kept those reasons hidden. As the war dragged on Lincoln appears to have concluded that God let the carnage go on so that slavery would crumble along with the rebellion. Never an abolitionist, and forthright in the early years of the war about his willingness to have ended it, if possible, without freeing a single slave, Lincoln now believed that God had effected the emancipation of 4 million African-Americans.

While much discussion of Lincoln seems to center around the "was he or wasn't he?" question of his Christian faith, I found Lincoln's struggles to find an answer to the "problem of evil" more interesting. I can't help but think of the many times in the last several years that Christians and non-Christians alike have asked aloud "How could God let this happen?" in relation to a major tragedy. September 11, the New Orleans hurricane, the tsunami--all of those events have been followed by much public soul-searching (and in almost every case, controversial statements about God's role in the disaster).

Reading this piece about Lincoln's faith, and seeing how he grappled with the question of God in the face of the bloody Civil War, reminds me that our generation isn't the first to struggle with these questions. Perhaps the next time tragedy inevitably strikes, we might do well to look back at history to see how previous generations of Christians have asked those same questions--and if they came to any conclusions worth considering.

Topics: Culture At Large, News & Politics, History