|"Abraham Lincoln" delivering the Gettysburg Address
Back in 1863 President Lincoln faced a daunting challenge. He had been asked to "formally set apart these grounds to their sacred use by a few appropriate remarks." Lincoln was to follow the principle speaker for the occasion, the renowned orator Edward Everett. Lincoln's task might seem simple enough, until the broader context is taken into consideration. For this was no ordinary dedication ceremony. The cemetery contains the bodies of thousands of union war casualties who had lost their lives in one of the most horrific bloodbaths in American history. Only 4-1/2 months earlier Union and Confederate armies had clashed over three days, leaving 51,000 men killed, wounded, or missing in action. The Union dead were still being transferred from shallow graves to their permanent resting places in the cemetery. The President was faced with the unenviable task of explaining to the grieving nation why the slaughter, for which many held him personally accountable, was necessary. (One of the casualties happened to be my great-grandmother's first husband, who was killed on the second day of the battle. They had only been married a year, and my great-grandmother was a Civil War widow at the age of 20!) Lincoln had to find a moral justification for the war, and he had to do it in just "a few appropriate remarks."
In a statement that contained only 272 words and only took two minutes or so to deliver, (Everett had spoken for nearly two hours) the President reminded the nation of its founding principles. Echoing the Declaration of Independence he stated that we were a nation that was "conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal." The Civil War was a test of whether such a nation could survive. He mentioned the soldiers who had given "the last full measure of devotion," and then challenged the audience to dedicate themselves – to dedicate themselves to completing the unfinished task, "that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom – and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth."
Interestingly the phrase "under God" was not in Lincoln's original manuscript. He apparently decided to add it later, possibly after conferring with Secretary of State William H. Seward the night before. Seward, it will be remembered, had caused a stir with his "Higher Law" speech of 1850. Originally the stated purpose of the war was to preserve the Union. But since the Emancipation Proclamation, which had gone into effect at the beginning of the year, the war had taken on a higher purpose, the abolition of slavery. But how could one justify overturning an established institution? Lincoln returned to the Abolitionist arguments of the 1850's. But whatever the source of inspiration, the question remains, are we, as a nation, "under God"? Did Lincoln overstate the case?
According to Lincoln, the foundational principle of American democracy was idea that "all men are created equal." But what makes us "equal"? Many white Americans at the time were not prepared to accept blacks as their equals. The way it is stated in the Declaration of Independence is that "all men are created equal," and "are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights." In other words, in the final analysis all human beings are equal because God created us that way. "So God created man in His own image; in the image of God He created him; male and female He created them" (Gen. 1:27; NKJV ). "And He [i.e., God] has made from one blood every nation of men to dwell on all the face of the earth . . ." (Acts 17:26). But once we accept the idea of Darwinian evolution, the case for racial equality, and by extension American democracy, collapses. It is ludicrous to suppose that different racial strains which are evolving independently of each other are equally adapted to some imaginary universal ideal prototype. They are just plain different from each other, and some are likely less "fit" than the rest. In a word, get rid of God and you get rid of our distinctive shared humanity and any concept of universal human rights. In the law of the jungle it is the survival of the fittest. To the victor go the spoils!
So are we a nation "under God"?
The Higher Law
One Nation Under God