He's the pinata that keeps on giving. Reihan explains:
Paleocons, of course, despise Lincoln as a centralist tyrant. Liberals lionize him as one of their own: a partisan of human freedom, a strong state, and democracy. Quirkycons ("reformocons" seems self-serving) look to his strange mix of strong statism, Whiggish pefectionist moralism, the cult of self-reliance, and democratic triumphalism.
Leaving aside the now obviously endless niche-ification of being conservative, the thing that always tied Lincoln's 'strange mix' together and made it coherent was his unflinching Christianity. Though that too could be read as somewhat strange, its tracings in his political acts and, of course, political speeches show Lincoln's theology of Christian suffering as the saving unity by which he endured the great smiting of the Civil War and hoped humbly to call the rest of the American nation to endure. These are some of the most praiseworthy things I have to say about Lincoln, and by saying them, faithful readers might already know, I in no way intend to obscure the fact of US history that Lincoln resolved to bring that smiting and suffering upon large portions of Americans who exercised, through their elected representatives, their sovereign right to remain in the American nation but depart the American nation-state. (For the record, I can agree that the Deep South was a bit hasty, but the behavior of the Upper South -- particularly those states that had just voted for Bell's Constitutional Union ticket -- have got to be read in a much different light, seceding as they did when it became clear that they would have to invade their neighbors and, in all likelihood, become a battleground anyway, if any intellectual honesty is to be retained.)
So it is with a sideways grin that I found, in the Claremont Review, published from out there in Lincoln Country, this undazzled discussion of Lincoln and suffering from friend of these pages Bill McClay:
As Ernest Renan and other theorists of nationalism have insisted, the nation is constituted in large measure by the shared memories of sufferings and sacrifices past, sufferings and sacrifices that make the present generation willing to endure sufferings and sacrifices of its own—not only to keep what it has, but to keep faith with those who have come before. The role of memory is crucial; that is to say, the role of history. Abraham Lincoln's First Inaugural Address, with its invocation of the "mystic chords of memory," or the Gettysburg Address, with its gesture toward the "honored dead" as a source of inspiration and a spirit of rededication, are paradigmatic examples of such uses of the memory of suffering. We are willing to sacrifice in part because we see that the sacrifices of those who came before us have been honored, and we too wish to be honored, as they are. But what if those who came before us cease to be honored—what then?
McClay doesn't address the Christian aspect head-on, but, as I really don't think it's in controversy, I'll move to the more controversial claim, which is that Lincoln's religion was not just commingled rhetorically in his politics or even, as in the case of Obama, playing 'every role' in his approach to politics but was in fact only a portion of a larger and a truly political creed. Listen:
Four score and seven years ago, our fathers brought forth upon this continent a new nation: conceived in liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.
With the Framers as the fathers and the new world as the mother, then, the American nation was duly conceived -- in an act of conception, of not blood but seed and soil, as 'paleocon' as you can get in the mystic-nationality department. [See Ronald Garet, "Creation and Commitment: Lincoln, Thomas, and the Declaration of Independence." 65 Southern California Law Review 1477 (1992).] Funny then that Lincoln's chords of memory did not hum as far back as 1775, or indeed prior, during the many years when, as Tocqueville was memorious enough to know, the long tradition of ordered liberty began as a local undertaking that rose slowly upward from pilgrim township to sovereign state. This of course ruins the central premise of Lincoln's paleoconservative nationalism -- the holy moment of the immaculate American conception.
But by the time of his Second Inaugural -- roughly a month before he was killed -- Lincoln's theology of suffering emerged most fully in the connection between the most terribly ancient and most terribly fresh memory:
It may seem strange that any men should dare to ask a just God's assistance in wringing their bread from the sweat of other men's faces, but let us judge not, that we be not judged. The prayers of both could not be answered. That of neither has been answered fully. The Almighty has His own purposes. "Woe unto the world because of offenses; for it must needs be that offenses come, but woe to that man by whom the offense cometh." If we shall suppose that American slavery is one of those offenses which, in the providence of God, must needs come, but which, having continued through His appointed time, He now wills to remove, and that He gives to both North and South this terrible war as the woe due to those by whom the offense came, shall we discern therein any departure from those divine attributes which the believers in a living God always ascribe to Him? Fondly do we hope, fervently do we pray, that this mighty scourge of war may speedily pass away. Yet, if God wills that it continue 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 drawn with the lash shall be paid by another drawn with the sword, as was said three thousand years ago, so still it must be said "the judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether."
The holy American founding could only survive in a new, rededicated birth of freedom in the knowledge that, despite the reckoning wherein neither the prayers of North nor South were answered, the sins of war borne by all did not break or desecrate the bonds of the nation but it fact purified them by a sacred transformation into repentance by a national resignation to just, if incomprehensible, suffering at the hands of God. Lincoln's devastated piety was quite literally the cross he bore -- the taking on of national sin which only he, as President, invader, conqueror, and Commander-in-Chief, could take on. Even before he was martyred, Lincoln was, and knew he was, the American Christ, and in so being he consecrated a political creed which included, but transcended, and, most strikingly, perfected America's philosemitic Christian creed. For only by the power of the state could the great sin and flaw of slavery be purged in blood.
* * *
Lincoln was not the only political theorist to have the strange fortune of being a suffering sovereign and accepting that role as proper and sacred. One fascinating study as yet unwritten would compare, in the tradition of Western political philosophy, those whose new political sciences created political creeds through the idealized vehicle of the suffering sovereign -- the earthly cognate of Christ as suffering servant -- with those who saw political creeds as needless because the purpose of politics was to reveal and institutionalize the needlessness of human suffering.
Here -- in a degree of contrast with, say, Strauss -- we would find the great divide between Machiavelli, whose prince was perhaps the first of the suffering sovereigns, and Hobbes, whose Leviathan created the conditions for commodious living while enjoying them himself (or themselves). But Hobbes was too complex a thinker to conceive of even his own perfect politics as triumphing on earth over the suffering of the soul. At least a third of Leviathan entirely concerns religion, specifically philosemitic Christianity, and his psychology of fevered action and withdrawn brooding patterns closely onto the Augustinian conception of the soul. Hobbes presented a world, not altogether different from Lincoln's, in which God spoke at the beginning and would speak again at the end, and the interim belonged to a hopeful, fragile, fallen humanity with recourse only to its poor powers to sojourn with dignity in a providential home never entirely ours.
Given this theology or psychology, the open question for politics is what role the sovereign is thus to play. The concentration of leadership, power, authority, and capacity becomes in significant part a concentration of suffering; so Machiavelli's prince must throw his whole life into governance, into constant preparation for war, eternal vigilance, and the existentially superhuman balancing act of being good without always seeming good and sometimes while doing bad -- all while citizens partake of glory and sacrifice without becoming consumed in the great, servile enterprise of statecraft, the centralized and unitary node of suffering in which all bucks, cosmic and earthly, stop here.
There are other models, of course, seeking for example to decentralize suffering and then distract us from it in the profitable business of satisfying particular interests. The main point is that the analytical concept of the suffering sovereign permits us to read the intellectual history of Western political thought in a new light that reveals enduring insights. Applied to Lincoln, it shows us a man both more paleoconservative than both anti-Lincoln and pro-Lincoln Americans might like to admit -- for different sets of reasons. Paleocons will see a figure more sympathetic than they would wish; freedom-loving progressive traditionalists will see the founder of a political creed that, for all its sweeping transcendence of religion, is inextricable from American particularism, addresses suffering with humiliated repentance rather than audacious hope, and cannot, by pen or sword, be converted successfully into the world's Fourth Great Religion.