Wednesday, November 20, 2013

A Nation Under God?

"Abraham Lincoln" delivering the Gettysburg Address
   Yesterday I had the opportunity of travelling to Gettysburg, PA to attend ceremonies commemorating the 150th anniversary of the Abraham Lincoln's famous "Gettysburg Address." The event was held in the Soldiers' National Cemetery on part of the battlefield not far from the spot where President Lincoln delivered his original address on November 19, 1863. Thousands were in attendance yesterday, most of us standing through the 1-1/2 hour event. A variety of politicians delivered brief remarks with major speeches by the noted historian James McPherson and U.S. Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell. A reenactor portraying Lincoln read the Gettysburg Address. The U.S. Marine Band played an instrumental arrangement of the old psalm tune "One Hundredth" (which had been played at the original occasion in 1863), and a male vocalist gave a solo rendition of "The Battle Hymn of the Republic." Toward the end of the program U.S. Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia the oath of allegiance to sixteen immigrants seeking U.S. citizenship.
    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"?

See also:
The Higher Law 
One Nation Under God 


  1. You were doing just fine until that final bit where your faith-based beliefs suddenly pop up to poison your thinking.

    In Darwinian terms, 'fit' means the ability to arrive at maturation and reproduce. This is what 'survival of the fittest' means. It does not mean what you think it means, domination by the strongest in an unregulated jungle environment. A small and weak critter can be fitter than a large and strong critter if can find a suitable environmental niche in which to safely reproduce. This is why the large carnivores are few in number compared to rapidly reproducing small herbivores: they are less 'fit'.

    You make a very typical mistake when you imply that races are genetically different. You are being fooled (again) by appearances. If this implication you assume were true in fact, then we'd be talking about different species and we're not; we're talking only about specific selected heritable physical traits like skin tone, eye colour, hair pattern, lip sizes, eye folds, and so on, by which we assign racial names. These are trivial differences in genetic families and have zero bearing on fitness in evolutionary terminology.

    Yes, racial equality in law was a very divisive issue within Lincoln's Republican Party and he tried desperately to find some kind of compromise (specifically, paying states for slave emancipation combined with emigration, a time limit on adults, a law on free born, and so on) regarding their legal treatment. By the time of Gettysburg, he had already written almost the final version of the emancipation proclamation and was waiting (listening and incorporating the advice of rivals) for a great military success to sell it as a necessary requirement for eventual victory. Because there was no written account other than Lincoln's at the time of delivery, we know that the phrase 'under god' was not included. Of the six copies Lincoln later made (that we have records of), four of them include this phrase. But what does the phrase actually mean?

    The creator in the Declaration of Independence (we know Lincoln studies both the Constitution that allowed slavery to establish legal precedence and the Declaration to reveal principled intention ) is a naturalist deistic idea shared by many of the Founding Fathers. Don't confuse this shared deistic idea to represent today's evangelical radical believers in biblical literalism. The two are not the same.

    American democracy as defended by Abraham Lincoln has no need of god, which is why the Constitution has no mention of any such critter nor debt owed to it. Strikingly, the central principle behind and empowering American governance and law comes only and solely from the people through the consent to be so governed. Today's ridiculous and archaic notion of a god, and our required obedience to his/its authority, is not just contrary to and in conflict with this secular founding principle to which all Founding Fathers assigned their signatures but antithetical to it. It undermines exactly that which is necessary for self-justification: secular authority. People are born with legal equality recognized by the state (this was clearly Lincolns opinion regarding whites) and not granted legal equality from the providence of benign divine tyrant (this was clearly not Lincoln's opinion). Your conclusion, therefore, is exactly backwards and detracts from the value of payment by those who spent their last full measure to gain the Union victory at Gettysburg: government of the people, by the people, for the people. Note what is obvious to those not polluted by allegiance to their theism: no god is needed or required.

  2. I'm having a little difficulty following your argument here, Tildeb. In the 5th paragraph of your comment you note, quite correctly, that the Creator mentioned in the Declaration of Independence was a "naturalistic deistic idea" and not necessarily the same idea as held by us "evangelical radical believers in biblical literalism." But it was, nevertheless, a concept of some kind of Deity who was in some sense our Creator, and our human rights can be ultimately traced back to Him. But then in your next paragraph you assert that "American democracy as defended by Abraham Lincoln has no need of god," and you imply that American democracy is built around the idea of popular sovereignty. Here I think you are confusing Lincoln with his opponent Stephen A. Douglas. What precipitated the whole crisis was the Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1852, which was championed by Douglas and was based on the idea of popular sovereignty.. Lincoln was outraged, and argued in a series of speeches in 1854 that the Act practically repealed the Missouri Compromise and left the entire Union open to the spread of slavery. And, as he was later to do at Gettysburg, he appealed to the Declaration of Independence as stating the founding principles of the Republic.
    The Declaration, after all, does not say that "they were endowed by a non-entity with certain inalienable rights"!
    (Interestingly, Lincoln, like a number of other prominent American politicians, was raised in a religious home but was not necessarily very religious himself. His upbringing undoubtedly gave him a strong sense of moral values, even though not necessarily a personal faith. This is why so many American politicians have been willing to use devious means to achieve idealistic ends!)