Jun 18, 2020
Abraham Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address is one of the most remarkable documents in American history – a serious theological meditation by a president as well as a work of great literary art. Speaking March 4, 1865 to a deeply moved crowd just weeks before his death, Lincoln suggested that “this terrible war,” the Civil War, was God’s punishment of America for the sin of slavery.
The theology may have been overly Calvinistic, but Lincoln’s fundamental insight was profoundly correct and remains so today. The roots of our national crisis – or, more precisely, our interlocking crises – are moral and must be addressed as such. Neither the familiar triad of more money, more programs, and more institutions, nor changes in police policy and procedures measure up to the need..
Yes, money, programs, and institutions are necessary and police reform may be needed. But so is more attention to the moral dimension of our national trauma. And although there is no new Lincoln on the national horizon, we have a right to ask our leaders and those aspiring to leadership to begin thinking along those lines.
Here I am reminded of something another wise man, Romano Guardini, said: “Man today holds power over things, but we can assert confidently that he does not yet have power over his own power.”
Monsignor Guardini, a distinguished German theologian, said that shortly after World War II, a conflict that witnessed the systematic firebombing of civilian populations, the mad pursuit of genocide epitomized by the Holocaust, and the first use of nuclear weapons. His analysis took the form of a frightening, prescient book called The End of the Modern World (it provided much of the inspiration for my own book, Eight Popes and the Crisis of Modernity).