The Wheatley Institution

Civic Charity and The Making of America

Matthew S. Holland
September 19, 2014

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Thank you Richard. It's wonderful to be here with you today. Truth and advertising demands that I tell you, though, that while I was informed that I had to do this because the topic was centered around my very research and focus and because President Worthen would be here and this would be a big deal, I did it because Emily Reynolds asked me to do it. She's a dear friend and I love her and her family very much, and it's so good to be back on this campus that I love and to be here with former colleagues. I especially appreciate seeing the two who didn't guffaw when my appointment at UVU was announced.

It's special for me to be here as we celebrate this thirtieth anniversary of the BYU public school partnership. In my current capacity, we are working very hard to develop something very much like this in a K–16 alliance for our service region of Utah, Wasatch, and Summit counties, working with many of the superintendents, some of whom are in this audience today, including Terry Shoemaker, a fine UVU trustee. I'm grateful to have him here today as well as some of my colleagues from UVU who are trying to build this up. I know that these partnerships are essential, that a clear and robust relationship between public ed and higher ed is absolutely essential for preparing our students for civic engagement, professional success, and personal flourishing, and so it's, again, just a double honor for me to be part of this as we're trying to pioneer something similar at Utah Valley University.

We gather here today to talk about civic virtue and civic life and so I thought it might be useful to start with a favorite story from one of the great icons of American public morality: Huey Long, the former governor of Louisiana. Those who have read their history are now laughing. Campaigning in heavily Catholic Louisiana, Huey tried to foster some political and religious unity in a stump speech by saying in a very Catholic part of the state, "When I was a boy, I would get up each Sunday morning at 6 a.m. and hitch up the horse to the wagon and take my grandparents to mass. And I'd bring them home and get breakfast and a little later and I'd hitch the horse back up to the wagon and I'd take my Baptist parents to church." And then he went on to give his speech. And afterwards this aide came up to him and said, "Huey, you've been holding out on us. That was so great, that was just such a great way to connect with those Catholic voters. I had no idea you had Catholic grandparents." Huey looked down and said, "Don't be a darn fool. We didn't even have a horse."

The cynicism here directed at any professed religious inclination or principle giving shape to a political activity or organization of any kind is not without some justification in this fair country of ours. That noted, I will forge ahead with my thesis this morning. I suggest that ideas of Christian charity or agape in the Greek, the highest form of love as found in the New Testament, have played a vital and prominent role in shaping the nature and direction of our civil society. More specifically, I argue that distinctly biblical notions of love have been over the years and ought to continually be artfully refashioned into a guiding public principle. The kind of civic charity I see emerging from several foundational moments in our democratic life together is a principle conceived of in broad enough terms to be comfortably embraced by a large and pluralistic swath of the republic while still having enough theological and normative heft to get it somewhere beyond a purely anodyne notion of just being nice, which seems to be all the rage today. To those skeptical that charity has played or should play much of a role in the development of political life, I say, "I get it." From Machiavelli's political reason to Bacon's scientific materialism to Locke's philosophical liberalism to Freud's therapeutic justice to Nietzsche's postmodern attack on moral norms traditionally understood, many of the strongest currents in our intellectual and academic life together form–whatever their other differences–a most imposing barrier for charity to play any meaningful part in our national civic life. But it is this very fact that makes the story of this country so interesting. Despite these swarming intellectual forces, various notions of agape have proven religiously central and politically salient in the rise of America. In the limited time we have here today, the best I can do to advance this thesis is to give you three very redacted accounts of foundational moments when some idea of Christian charity has been key, and then offer you a kind of brief summary account of the complex public principle that seems to emerge from those and related moments.

Charity is first planted deeply into the soil of America's political heritage by John Winthrop. An attorney and respected man of means of Suffolk County, England, Winthrop is elected governor of the Massachusetts Bay Company, later colony, in 1629. And by the spring of 1630 he was on board the Arabella, sailing to America as part of the great migration of English Puritans to the new world.

After arriving in Massachusetts, Winthrop remained governor until 1634 and was later reelected to governor or lieutenant governor twelve more times. He was serving as governor when he died in 1649. Over these two decades of illustrious service to one of America's most important early English colonies, Winthrop settled Boston and skillfully held together a sprawling frontier settlement of Massachusetts in the face of harsh winters, economic downturn, sporadic Indian attacks, unpredictable patterns of migration, and divisive political and theological disputes.  He also took a leading role in creating the first confederation of American colonies, and through all of this he kept a journal that remains one of the single richest sources of New England History.

As Winthrop left England on board the Arabella in 1630, he offered a lay sermon, entitled, "A Model of Christian Charity" which spelled out his vision of public life in the new world. The speech's sophistication and far-reaching impact more than justify the assessment of a number of political theorists and intellectual historians who see it as a kind of urtext for the American political tradition. And, in the words of the famed Perry Miller, make Winthrop a resolute statesman "standing at the beginning of our consciousness."[1]

Winthrop's speech reveals agape as the form of all the Christian virtues best summarized in the two great commandments to love God with all one's heart, soul, and mind and to love one's neighbor as one's self.[2] Though predicated on premodern assumptions of providential hierarchy and inequality, Winthrop's sermon generates for the Bay Colony a social theory that supports a system of nascent democracy and welfare practices well ahead of the most notable progressive social thought of the day.  

Though it's easily missed given the caricature of Puritan life that tends to prevail in our contemporary consciousness, the fact of the matter is that on Winthrop's watch and stemming directly from ideas and arguments made in his famous ship board sermon about charity, considerable care was rendered to the poor. Winthrop was also repeatedly on record for making diligent efforts to maintain relationships of peace and affection with those who opposed him personally and the colony in general. The kind of virulent anti-Catholic sentiments so common throughout England at the time are noticeably absent from Winthrop's writings. Until the day he died, Roger Williams, one of the most famous internal dissenters of Winthrop's Boston, spoke hardly anything but fondness and praise for the man. And with the respect of the earlier Boston's religious and racial other, Winthrop's own journal records a number of amicable exchanges with Native Americans, including hosting them in his home overnight. And he inflicted strict punishment for any colonist guilty of mistreating them.

Winthrop's Massachusetts was also more in light than almost all of the colonies in its treatment of African Americans. Massachusetts honored slave marriages before the law, afforded slaves the right to trial by jury, prevented masters from inflicting arbitrary punishment, and openly admitted African Americans to local congregations on the same basis as white applicants. Maybe most influential of all is the contribution Winthrop and the Puritans made to America's culture of democracy and law. In the "Model of Christian Charity" speech, Winthrop is clear: the working of setting up civic and ecclesiastical power must be done by mutual consent. The Puritans made the state and even the church answerable to the people and not vice versa. To that end, one of his first major moves as governor was to expand the franchise. Furthermore, spurred on by certain Calvinist teachings of the kind of persecutions Puritans experienced in England from England's fusion of the civil and ecclesiastical power, Massachusetts under Winthrop's leadership laid out a remarkably well-defined separation of church and state. And over time, primarily on Winthrop's watch, Massachusetts developed a bicameral legislative body of rudimentary checks and balances between a larger assembly of deputies and a smaller aristocratic assembly of assistance anchored by a written body of fundamental liberties, making it one of the most democratic institutions in the world in the time—if not the most democratic at the time.

All of this was done in a genuine and dangerous state of nature and a good 50 years before John Locke would publish his Second Treatise. In the "Model of Christian Charity" speech, Winthrop argues that the foundation of community he and his colleagues were building in the new world should be that of true charity or Christian love. His vision was that through the power of God's grace, people would draw together in a perfect whole. Those who had been separated by Adam's fall and man's subsequent sinful nature and selfishness would be reconnected. Charity bonds Christ and his saints into what Winthrop called "the most perfect of all bodies." In this way, charity is the love of God binding the saints to God, and the love of man binding the saints to each other makes possible a tight and warmly knit covenantal union of Christ and his regenerate followers.

For many, the distinctly Christian roots of this unity are too exclusionary to be very attractive today. But even solid secularists and non-Christians tend to acknowledge that the result is a rather compelling vision of community. As Winthrop describes it,

All parts of this body being thus united are made so contiguous in a special relation as they must needs partake of each other's strength and infirmity. Joy and sorrow, wail and woe. If one member suffers, all suffer with it. If one be in honor, all rejoice with it. The sensibleness and sympathy of each other's condition will necessarily infuse each part of the native desire and endeavor to strengthen, defend, preserve, and comfort each other.[3]

There's also a generally wide appreciation for the way that Winthrop memorializes the thrust of his message in a lasting image he borrows from the book of Matthew.

Winthrop concludes his sermon by declaring that a community so ordered would indeed become a "city upon a hill" an example for all successive plantations, one worthy of great praise and glory. Especially when contrasted with the much-contested anomie of contemporary society there is much here to admire. In point of fact, Winthrop's view that Puritan new England could be so unique, compassionate, and good at home and benignly influential throughout the rest of the world shaped not only the Boston of his day, but larger American ideals ever since. And maybe nowhere more so than in the relatively recent past. As the said title of a just published Oxford Press biography suggests, Winthrop is America's "forgotten founder,"[4] an assessment that simply follows in the intellectual wake of Tocqueville who first and best claimed that he could see the whole destiny of America contained in Winthrop, who exerted a more powerful political influence on America than many of the traditional founding fathers of 1776 and 1787.

That this vision of a "city upon a hill' would seem fundamentally to exclude the non-faithful, non-regenerate, of whom there were more than a few even in early Boston, is not Winthrop's only problem, however, from the political perspective. The all-too-real and dark side of Puritanism is its harshness. This in some ways comes from a result of rather than in spite of Winthrop's call to charity. The problem here has more to do with hermeneutics than hypocrisy. The very demands of the love for God and others in the hands of Winthrop creates hyper-judgmentalism that is ultimately anemically not just to individual well-being but also to community. As Winthrop warns, should the Massachusetts Bay Colony fail to properly demonstrate their love for God through an exacting commitment to their communal covenants with him, "the Lord will surely break out in wrath against us, and we shall surely perish out of the good land whether we pass over this vast sea to possess it." From this we can see how Winthrop's model eventually implodes, buckling under the weight of its own understanding of what agape demands from its citizenry. Because the strict keeping of commandments large and small became critical to demonstrating a love for God and thus for survival, Puritan England was infected at times with a grim paranoia, a grim intolerance toward those potentially jeopardizing the communal covenant and thus their individual and collective lives. By this formulation, the most loving thing one could do for one's neighbor is to punish them into keeping their covenants. But there is yet another problem here, one less recognized than the former. Concepts of biblical charity cannot be severed from broader epistemic claims of truth. Because Winthrop fails to adequately develop a framework for facilitating such claims, the full range of truths necessary to support and wisely direct the community's practices of charity are bereft a stable footing and sure guide. Of course, the scriptures were taken to be God's word of truth, but it is the very nature of the Puritan congregational approach to religious understanding that they constantly chafed at the very forms of authority essential for cementing agreement concerning covenant obligations toward the love of God and man.

Speaking of such covenants in the model, Winthrop says, "The Lord has given us leave to draw our own articles." But nowhere in the speech does Winthrop carefully reason about or offer authoritative revelation on who the "us" is or how the final decisions will get adjudicated. Thus, in another way, Winthrop's model eventually explodes, unable to contain or channel all the competing visions of a godly life of love that sprang up in the extraordinarily religious fervent of Puritan America. Despite the great power and continuing legacy of Winthrop's founding vision, America needed a different kind of footing for political life.

In the spring of 1776, shortly after Thomas Jefferson arrived in Philadelphia to attend the Continental Congress, local papers published a draft of the Virginia Declaration of Rights, a document penned by George Mason, one of Jefferson's most important mentors in matters of political theory. Historians are now virtually certain that Jefferson had a copy of Mason's document in hand as he wrote his original rough draft of the Declaration. One remarkable aspect of Mason's text is that the final line reads, "And that it is the mutual duty of all to practice Christian forbearance, love, and charity towards each other," in addition to other passages and logic strikingly similar to Jefferson's second sentence in the Declaration. This would seem to suggest a continued political relevance for some concept of Christian charity even at the onset of the American Revolution nearly a century and a half after Winthrop delivered his model sermon. However, Jefferson's declaration which at times appears to follow Mason's document of virtually lock step fashion, moves aggressively to extinguish any vestige of an American aspiration to be a model of Christian charity. In the Declaration of Independence, Jefferson re-situates American government on a morality of natural equality and concomitant rights that privileges the individual pursuit of happiness. By asserting that all men are created equal, Jefferson asserted that no man has a natural claim to rule over another. As his original draft makes especially clear, it's from this natural equality that certain natural, inherent, or inalienable follow. From that equal creation, they derive inherent and inalienable rights, among which are the preservation of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

By the way, if I was stumbling a little bit there on inalienable rights, you know this famous episode of the controversy around that phrase: when Jefferson first writes the draft of the Declaration, he refers to unalienable rights. And when he sends it off to the printer, it comes back as inalienable rights. And ever since then, linguists have been arguing over which one it should be. This is what pointy-headed academics do for a living. This controversy was solved a few years ago by the reigning master of the English language George W. Bush, who, on a trip through Europe referred to our uninalienable rights. So you can use that if you get in trouble. And I was sort of heading that direction, so you'll have to forgive me.

The implications of the Declaration's philosophical liberalism for Christianity are significant. People are perfectly free by right to seek their individual happiness through following the tenets of Christianity—but it is not government's job to ensure that this happen. Government is simply to establish an environment that lets Christians be Christians, Hindus be Hindus, and atheists be atheists in a peaceful and orderly environment. As Jefferson put it so memorably in his only published book, Notes on the State of Virginia, "The legitimate powers of government exist to such acts only as are injurious to others. But it does me no injury for my neighbor to say that there are twenty Gods or no God ; It neither picks my pocket nor breaks my leg." Consequently, Jefferson's Declaration makes no reference to the providential God of the Judeo-Christian tradition, but only a solitary reference to a vague, amorphous, non-demanding, naturous God. And the self-evident truths of this morality are accessible not by revelation but by the scientific light of reason and the universal moral sense working in tandem. Furthermore, Jefferson devotes a significant amount of his political career to building a wall of separation between church and state. The crowning achievement of this effort was the disestablishment of a state church for Virginia, an effort that began just months after the passage of the Declaration. For Jefferson, embracing Christianity as a private matter was perhaps okay, but with respect to the public principles of governance that Jefferson fashioned in the Declaration and elsewhere, religion of any kind was to remain irrelevant. Among other advantages, this broad but thin and barely theistic public morality obviates many of the sources of harshness and social strife inherent in Winthrop's model of Christian charity. And it laid the groundwork for the most successful experiment in human self-rule the world has ever seen.

It also comfortably comported with what is now largely accepted as Jefferson's youthful dismissal of Christianity. For many, this is the complete story of Jefferson and his decided break with America's Christian past. But, as is often the case, the story is more complicated than this. What is less known about Jefferson is that during the decade before his presidency, several influences transform his private thoughts about Christianity and its public utility. Sometime around 1793, Jefferson read A History of the Corruptions of Christianity by Joseph Priestly.  As he later said, "I have read Priestley's Corruption and early opinions of Jesus over and over again and I rest on them as the basis of my own faith." Priestly argues that the early apostles and church leaders corrupted Christ's original teachings with cryptic doctrines like the trinity, original sin, and the atonement. In doing so, Priestley eliminated much of what Jefferson had long found unacceptably mysterious and irrational in Christianity. His readings of Priestley and other influences, including a series of conversations with his evangelical friend Dr. Benjamin Rush, considerably alter his attitude concerning the validity and significance of certain Christian ideals. As Jefferson later wrote to Rush, "to the corruptions of Christianity, I am indeed opposed. But not the general precepts of Jesus himself. I am a Christian in the oldest sense in which he wished anyone to be, sincerely attached to his doctrines in preference to all others."[5] Of course, the concept of Christian charity Jefferson comes to admire is one radically refashioned. It is illustrative of the degree to which Jefferson was taken with a biblical concept of love and of his dramatic alteration of the same concept that early into his first term as President he spent several evenings cutting out only the verses he approved of from multiple copies of the New testament, and then pasting them onto blank paper, having them bound and titling it "the Philosophy of Jesus of Nazareth." Just a little side job for a President of the United States, apparently.

Prominent are excerpts from the Sermon on the Mount, the compassionate parables of Luke, which in turn in the table of contents Jefferson labels "True Benevolence." Jefferson also includes the passages from Matthew 22 concerning the two great commandments of Christianity, "thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart…and thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself," which Jefferson labels "General Moral Precepts." Of course, Jefferson takes absolutely nothing from the Old Testament and his redaction of the New Testament only includes passages from the four gospels with very little from the esoteric book of John. He entirely excises the accounts of Christ's mysterious conception and birth, the miracles of his ministry, and most notably the atoning and sacrificial nature of his death and resurrection—cornerstones of traditional Christian theology. Though never adequately accounted for in the secondary literature, Jefferson's rationalized version of Christ's teachings of love strongly shaped his most important public speech, his first inaugural, one of only two speeches he ever gave as President. Without dramatic alteration of his commitment to a rights-based government of limited proportions, Jefferson address speaks of a new order of importance for effecting a national happiness, a concept he refers to six separate times in the address. And in each of those references we see that national happiness is grounded in love, and a religious love at that. The best example of this can be found in what is one of the greatly underappreciated metaphors of American political thought; in the heart of his address, Jefferson speaks of America's "circle of felicities." Discussing this at length, he explains that one a central arc on this circle of national happiness is a widespread embrace of "benign religion" professed in deed and practiced in various forms, yet all of them including honesty, truth, temperance, gratitude, and the love of man and the acknowledging and adoring of an overruling providence which by all its dispensations proves the lights and the happiness of man here and in the greater happiness hereafter. Given Jefferson's youthful attitudes about religion, this statement is quite astonishing. Jefferson now openly congratulates America for its widespread religiosity, especially for the way it promotes happiness by fostering the love of man and an adoring of God, the central elements of Christian charity.

Of course, Jefferson retains some unorthodox views concerning these elements. And keeping consistent with his firm belief that government should not endorse or promote specific faiths, he is careful to praise religion in general rather than Christianity, and he makes a more pluralistic reference to providence rather than a more traditional anthropomorphical reference to God as the stated object of devotion. It does not even take close examination of Jefferson's First Inaugural to see that he doesn't do much to alter the classical liberalism of the Declaration. Nor can a circle of felicities metaphor be seen to supersede the wall of separation between church and state, a trope Jefferson employed in the Letter to the Danbury Baptist Association ten months after the First Inaugural. Jefferson repeatedly and explicitly affirms his early liberalism, the foundation of his separationist philosophy. Still, and away, the speech does temper Jefferson's earlier liberalism, declaring that a polity based on a purely secular individualism will be an unhappy one indeed. His speech also implies that such a polity may also be unstable. What most of what drove Jefferson to tout America's religious sense of love in the first inaugural was his determined effort to heal the ugly rift between Federalists and Republicans stemming from the especially virulent campaign of 1800. To that end, the speech was remarkably successful, at least in the short term. Benjamin Rush, who worked tirelessly to evangelize Jefferson, was positively delighted to discover that in response to the publication of his address in Philadelphia, old friends too long separated by party names were reunited. While Jefferson's enterprise brings a certain warmth to a historically cool liberalism even as it avoids the harsh and imprudent and imprudent judgementalism of Winthrop's Puritanism, it must be acknowledged that it is based on a concept of charity that does great violence to charity's traditional roots. Jefferson strips biblical agape of those things that would allow it to do what perhaps it alone can do for democratic politics. A point most forcefully and eloquently made by Lincoln.

In one of the earliest speeches of his career, Lincoln reveals a deep worry over the dangers that human hatred pose for democratic rule of law. The antidote he offers is political religion. While Lincoln's suggestion embodies many of the trappings of traditional religion—sermons, worship, hallowed text—it is hewn entirely from the solid quarry of sober reason, recognizes no deity, and is comprehensively earthly in its aim, making obedience to law, especially the Constitution, sacred to the masses.

In another address given just a few weeks after this one, Lincoln argues that all political and moral reform to be effective ought to be predicated on true benevolence and charity. He is explicit, though, that this love-like political religion is subject entirely to the reign of reason, all hail. These and text written at the end of his life make clear that from start to finish, Lincoln saw charity and civil religion as political emollients, critical to overcoming the democratic hazards of human hatred and malice. However, the purely rational concept of charity underpinned in his early addresses appears quite different than the theistic version that crowns the civil religion of his later presidential rhetoric. When Joshua Speed, Lincoln's best friend from the Illinois days, comes to the White House, he happened upon Lincoln intently reading the Bible. Speed announced himself by saying, "Well, if you have recovered from your skepticism, I am sorry to say I have not." Lincoln soberly replied, "You are wrong, Speed. Take all of this book upon reason that you can, and the balance on faith, and you will live and die a happier man." David Donald, Lincoln's most acclaimed academic biographer, concludes that by the time Lincoln was elected to the presidency, he had undergone a substantial religious transformation. Lincoln's wife, Mary may prove the most apt assessment of all; noting that he never became "a technical Christian," by which she meant he was never baptized, took communion, or formally joined a church, her view was that he was fundamentally a religious man by nature. Religion was "a kind of poetry in his nature," and that was especially drawn out in the last few years of his life.

To deny a bright and distinctly Biblical faith and morality during Lincoln's presidency as some continue to do is to ignore more than just the reports of those closest to him during his life and his best chroniclers, it is to deny the genuineness of Lincoln's own words in the speech he himself thought would be regarded as better than anything he had produced, namely his Second Inaugural. In that speech, the oblique image of a real if distant God that sneaks into the end of the Gettysburg Address, but actually only in some versions of that world masterpiece. It is replaced with an utterly central and striking depiction of a Judeo-Christian God exercising full if unfathomable and even harsh dominion over American politics. "The Almighty has his own purposes," Lincoln declares to both the North and the South who were respectively praying for their own speedy victory in war. "He gives to both North and South this terrible war as the woe due to those by whom the offense of human slavery came."

Lincoln surmises, echoing the passage from Matthew 18:7 he had just quoted in full: "Woe unto the world because of offenses! for it must be that offenses come; but woe unto that man by whom the offenses cometh!" While the deity appealed to in Lincoln's second inaugural sounds much like the punishing force of providence that looms throughout Winthrop's "A Model of Christian Charity," there are some important differences. Compared to Winthrop's political theology, Lincoln embodies an even more profound sense of the unfathomability of God. On this point, Lincoln might be said to be more Puritan than the Puritans, for whom Calvin's teaching that God was beyond comprehension yet alone emulation, was a central tenant of faith.

The most striking example of this comes with the speech's opening, where Lincoln offers no prediction concerning the final victory in war. This is absolutely shocking in light of the fact that victory was so obviously imminent. With Grant's long range guns firing from the north and Sherman's juggernaut of devastation moving up from the south, Lee's forces were fatally pinned at Richmond and everybody knew it. Given that this embattled wartime President had every political incentive to promise and claim credit for a quick and triumphant end, Lincoln's reticence here is undoubtedly connected to what becomes the speech's most recurring motif: the war is running according to the unknowable providence of God. As Lincoln explains to the end of the speech, the war will simply last as long as God wants it to. Which just may be 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 with the lash shall be paid by another drawn by the sword." Lincoln offers no prediction because he cannot offer one. Overwhelming empirical evidence logically suggesting a particular outcome still remains subject to a God with total power and divine aims beyond human ken. This conviction of God's oversight of the war, coupled with a radical uncertainty concerning God's providential purposes, leaves Lincoln, unable to blame the South for the start of the war, despite the obvious fact that unprovoked Southern succession triggered the hostilities, or let the South blame the North for the errant devastation of the war, regardless of the infamously bulldog tactics of Grant and scorched earth marches of Sherman. Speaking of both sides' intentions and aims, Lincoln intones, "all dreaded it, all sought to avoid it, both parties deprecated war, each looked for an easier triumph." This theme of seeing both sides resting on remarkably moral footings, "Let us now judge not lest we be judged," he says of the South to the North. With a move grounded in Lincoln's profound doubt concerning the evidence the visible and rational world provides about the moral and spiritual world. And this culminates in what are arguably the single most benevolent and forgiving lines ever written by a successful military leader in the history of the world:

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.

If Lincoln's wide and epistemic uncertainties produce a kind of suspension of judgment critical to the sublime, even Christlike compassion of these lines, this parolation also makes it clear that Lincoln's position cannot be described as relativistic or completely agnostic about moral truths. The liberal truth of the Gettysburg Address plus the fraternal advantages of union, "Can aliens make treaties easier than friends make law," Lincoln asked in his First Inaugural, still demanded a decided "firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right." With a national community renewed in liberty to protect, Lincoln's Second Inaugural simultaneously interdicts a spirit of hatred and revenge, and triggers an act of care for both sides, even as it rallies the North to resolutely prosecute the final stages of the war.

Here it might finally and more precisely be explained how Lincoln's position rests on a moral fabric Jefferson could not provide. To argue that Lincoln puts the North and the South on morally equitable footings is not to say that they are both equally beyond blame; rather it is to say that Lincoln forestalls one side from blaming the other by blaming them both. By Lincoln's formulation, it is not the war that is evil, it is not the South that is evil: it is slavery that is the evil, an unmistakable violation of the Gettysburg and Philadelphia truth that all men are created equal. And while Northerners had earlier abolished for the most part the practice of slavery, they significantly helped initiate it and continued the slave trade. Thus, both sides stand guilty of contributing to the war's cause. Yet, paradoxically, because both sides are to blame for the war, there is a sense in which both sides are blameless before each other. By teaching that "the war came not from one side or the other, but as a true and righteous judgment from God," part of a line Lincoln borrows from Psalm 19:9, against slavery practiced by one side and abetted by the other, and precedes under his control according to his impenetrable ways and noble purposes, both sides stand innocent of the war's actual start and ugly duration. Accordingly, both sides must come to forgive and care for the other. Furthermore, neither side can curse God for a brutal,  lengthy war they brought upon themselves for sustaining for two and a half centuries a form of human bondage one hour of which was worse, claimed Frederick Douglass, than the ages of oppression the founding fathers rose up in rebellion to oppose. Lincoln's core teaching amounts to this: both sides must love each other and God, even as the North must relentlessly fight to end the war in order to exterminate the evil of slavery. The whole ingenious argument here hinges upon a doctrine of natural rights coupled with a mystical and punishing God of love who intervenes in the affairs of men. But it is just this kind of mysterious, personal God of good and evil that Jefferson refuses to insert into the Declaration of Independence and aggressively excises from his version of the New Testament. Neither of the scriptural linchpins of Lincoln's Second Inaugural discussed here, Psalm 19 and Matthew 18, are found in the Bible Jefferson made as President. This is because Jefferson entirely rejected the Old Testament and carefully stripped the New Testament of anything that suggested the God of the Bible, deified manifestations of modern scientific reason, or embodied the violent judgmentalism of Calvinist Puritanism.

Thankfully, Jefferson's liberalism helped move America away from the harshness of 1630 and his diluted Christianity helped heal the destabilizing incivilities of 1800. However, absent an openness to the mystery of a living God of justice and mercy, a mystery that unquestionably runs throughout both Old and New Testament, Jefferson's particular form of Christian liberalism would likely have been impotent in the face of the overpowering spirit of mutual revenge lurking in 1865. Mollifying the animosities between indignant Federalists and insensitive Republicans in 1800 is hardly to be compared with neutralizing the true acids boiling between the grieving families and raging regional leaders of 1865. Jefferson's model of charity was able to inspire social and political congeniality needed in his day, but there is reason to suspect it could have dissolved the bloody hatred of civil war. Such forgiveness and charitable reconciliation seem rather of necessity to depend upon a power beyond human nature and a morality beyond modern reason,  a power Jefferson assiduously refused to admit.

Lincoln's mature political thought rested on two solid truth claims about humanity: The first is that all humans are free to determine the direction of their individual lives because they are natural equals with one another. Lincoln attested to the truth of this throughout his career and fought tooth and nail to ensure that the country became ever more dedicated to such a truth. The second truth, something Lincoln embraced later in his life, is that all humans are under God, specifically the God of the Bible, who directs the affairs of men and who commands love for himself and other human beings. In the concrete realities of civic life, these two truths may seem to stand in conflict with one another;where classical liberal thought moves to separate religion and secular political power, and in general keep the power of government minimal in the lives of naturally free beings, agape would seem to inflame every aspect of one's life, including one's political life, with a drive to acknowledge and lovingly obey God and to show forth active and heartfelt concern for all. And yet on closer examination, there may be deeper harmony and positively reinforcing relationship between these truths. Especially when they are blended together by Lincoln's deft touch into something like civic charity. Where the harder sectarian and solely Christian edges of agape are softened in substance and rhetoric and meshed into natural rights doctrine of inherent human liberty, it is only some form of charity throughout the community that makes the very existence of a free people possible, starting with the deep care required to raise young and vulnerable life to a capable and responsible democratic citizenship. Affectionate ties between citizens, ties which sometime require the combined efforts of a commanding transcendent power and a clear sense of the neediness of all human beings, stand as important bulwarks against the tyrannical and anarchic enemies of natural right. While surely regretful in some sense of needing to rely on market economies and constitutional mechanisms, of government which presume a spirit of faction and self-interest, any truly biblically inspired sense of charity would have a keen consciousness of the severe and universal human fallibility that demands such institutions of liberty even as it beckons us to live more generously than those institutions alone require.

Finally, charity tempers rather than expands a kind of arrogant world imperialism, to which, say, a model of natural liberty may ironically be tempted. An unimpeachable recommendation of Lincoln's unique synthesis of faith-based love and natural liberty culminating in what we might call a "model of civic charity" would require thorough convincing proof of the Declaration and the Bible. No such proofs can be offered here, nor will they be offered anywhere soon. Of course, the same could be said of proofs that would wholly convince all of the falseness of those claims.

So, what if, as Lincoln came to believe, they are both true? What if it is true that man by his nature is entitled to be free and that there is a God in heaven who rules the earth and demands that humans love him and each other? If these things are both true, what should our politics look like? Since Machiavelli, ascending voices in political philosophy have simply assumed that agape is either ethically non-binding or should play little or no role in our political life. But we might consider the loss to this country had Lincoln felt beholden to offer his Second Inaugural by the strictures of so much modern political theory. Lincoln and his thoughts still matter today because virtually all Americans act and speak in their daily lives as if the first truth claim concerning natural liberty is true. Vast numbers of Americans still accept some version of the second truth claim concerning Christian charity on faith. These two truths supply different instincts that have become a permanent element of our politics. When blended together, they defy strict party label, which does much to explain Lincolns' continuing cross-ideological appeal and broad cultural influence. Singularly committed to robust visions of both truth claims, Lincoln developed a political version and rhetoric well suited to steer America toward a model of civic charity. Such a model combines Winthropian and Jeffersonian ideals into a dynamic equilibrium supported by an intellectual framework that recognizes the inherent partiality of any political, historical commitment of inescapably biased human beings even as it cautiously relies on history, reason, and revelation to guide effective political action in the present. In its modern-like embrace of natural liberty, its ancient-like faith in a God of love who commands love, and by the lessons of human experience peacefully lubricated by a postmodern-like suspension of judgment about who is fully moral and what is fully right. We see that Lincoln's philosophy in some eyes may be an illogical and contraduring mix of notions. But others will recognize in it the manifestation of a gifted intellectual and moral iridescence,  a Tocquevillian knack, if you will, for uniting the spirit of religion and the spirit of liberty in a way where neither spirit destroys, but instead supports the other. Unlike Jefferson's attempt at an instauration of Christianity by striking out the divine and original core of that tradition's theology, Lincoln's inspiration of America itself sought a careful preservation of this country's liberal core, but to do so only by explicitly ensconcing it in the Christian charity of its earliest Puritan traditions. A charity, which I have tried to show, gave significant birth and sustaining influence to that liberal core. Lincoln remade America entirely out of old cloth, but produced a garment with the luster and strength of something brand new. With its compassion and wisdom, Lincoln's sacred effort got us through the Union's most desperate hour. Where it was rejected after that hour, America incurred its longest and bitterest scars. Even today, there is strong evidence that it continues to draw America together in a vigorous and needed more than ever devotion to liberty and reverential spirit of mutual concern for all. With sagacious and moving art, it refuses to let us forget that temporal and eternal bonds of affection just may be the bonds that make us free. Thank you very much.


[1] Miller, Perry. Nature's Nation. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1967.

[2] Matthew 22.

[3] Winthrop, John. "A Model of Christian Charity"

[4] Bremer, Francis J. John Winthrop: America's Forgotten Founding Father. Oxford University Press, 2013.

[5] Jefferson, Thomas. Letter to Benjamin Rush. April 2, 1803.

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