Today is the two hundredth anniversary of Abraham Lincoln’s birth. And here’s an interesting tidbit of knowledge that I learned today: Charles Darwin was born on the exact same day as Lincoln.
I want to focus on Lincoln in this post, but Darwin will come into my discussion at the end.
I learned quite a bit about Abraham Lincoln when I was in elementary school, since Lincoln grew up in my beloved home state of Indiana. We learned that Lincoln had a mother who died when he was young, and that his dad then married a woman who took a special interest in Abe and gave him books to read. We heard that Lincoln had such a knack for rhetoric that his family would listen to his sermons every Sunday. Basically, Lincoln would go to church, hear the sermon, and re-enact it before his family, and that would be their church service! And we often heard that Lincoln got a good education by sitting in front of the fireplace reading law books. The lesson here was that reading could get us far in life, since Lincoln became a lawyer and the President of the United States!
In my reading and things that I heard, I also encountered a Lincoln who did not entirely fit the myth. People can pull out Lincoln quotes that regard blacks as inferiors. While Christians love to quote Lincoln’s wish to be on God’s side, there are rumors that he wrote an anti-Christian tract when he was younger, and his religious beliefs were not exactly orthodox in an evangelical sense. Some have cited stories in which Honest Abe appears a little less than honest. When I watched a C-SPAN re-enaction of the Lincoln/Douglas debates, Lincoln did not come across as that good of an orator, in either his delivery or content. (But maybe the delivery flaws were the fault of the actor.) And Lincoln’s step-mother supposedly said that she didn’t hear much from Abe once he left home. (Nice guy!)
The man was complex. People debate whether or not he was a Christian, but he did acknowledge a dependence on God when he was President. He could be kind, approachable, and sensitive, but he didn’t stay in touch with the family that raised him. Maybe he cut corners every now and then, but a strong sense of Christian morality guided him, especially when he exhorted the Union to forgive the South once it re-entered the United States. Whether or not he viewed blacks as equals, there was a strong part of him that disliked slavery, since he joined a young party that was formed in opposition to it. He may not have been the best speaker in the world, but one of his simplest speeches (the Gettysburg Address) remains a salient encapsulation of American ideals.
A wise woman once told me that there is bad in the best of us, and good in the worst of us. “God” in Joan of Arcadia said something similar, when he discussed a moral continuum that all of us are on, in which many of us are neither completely good nor completely evil. I thought about this after I watched The Rosa Parks Story, when I read up on James Blake, the bus-driver who ordered Rosa Park to give up her seat. This man was a veteran of World War II. He fought for his country! Yet, he allowed himself to be influenced by the prejudices of his time and place.
There are lessons that we can draw from Lincoln’s life. He managed to educate himself, even though his family was dirt-poor. His political career is practically a sermon on not giving up, since he lost tons of elections before he finally became President of the United States. We like to elevate him to the level of sainthood, but he was above all a human being. Some have argued that he was a manic depressant, who didn’t want to be left alone with a razor because he feared what he might do.
Whatever Lincoln’s complexities or quirks or weaknesses, I think that at heart he was a good man. At least he could rise above the “us vs. them” mentality that pervades the political atmosphere. He even appointed political opponents to his administration! I believe that God brought him to the Presidency for that very time, whatever his political inexperience might have been. That’s not to say that God rubber-stamped or approved of everything he did, since critics do well to point out that Lincoln could be quite tyrannical. But, in my opinion, Lincoln was the right man for the job at that time. And, however I may oppose many of Barack Obama’s policies, attitudes, and moves, I think that he is the right man for a time such as this. But time will tell! And I probably won’t vote for him in the next election!
Okay, let me say a word or two on Darwin, since it’s his birthday too. I didn’t learn about him in elementary school because I lived in the buckle of the Bible belt. But he too was a man of complexity. His theory of evolution has been associated with atheism, yet he was a Christian at some point in his life, and people have identified theistic and atheistic statements in his writings. Darwin has been linked to racism, yet one of the most racist areas was the anti-Darwinian Christian South, which had slavery and segregation. I guess my overall point is this: People are messy, but we can see good in their lives and hopefully learn lessons from them.