I miss Lincoln’s birthday. Washington’s, too. We celebrate Presidents’ Day now. Three cheers for the executive branch! Will we soon have national holidays for the legislative and judicial branches so we don’t endanger the separation of powers?
Tomes on Lincoln abound these days. Doris Kearns Goodwin’s mammoth Team of Rivals addresses the political genius of the 16th president. People of faith can profit as much as politicians from study of Lincoln on leadership.
All faith is political. It doesn’t go without saying. Extremists of one kind want faith kept private in order to protect the public square from undue religious influence. Extremists of another kind want their faith enacted into public policy. The truth lies between the two, which is where Lincoln’s view lay.
Abraham Lincoln’s faith directed his politics, but that faith combined keen confidence in God’s government of history with equal humility over human certainty of God’s will and ways. He never enlisted God to sanctify his politics or used religious language to manipulate opinion.
“The Almighty has his own purposes,” he famously claimed in his brief but brilliant second inaugural address. A certain kind of politics follows such faith. He concluded with this unifying challenge: “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.”
Lincoln practiced what he preached. He eschewed cronyism. After winning a surprising first term, his four bitterest rivals for the highest office were invited to join his administration, along with prominent Democrats. Initially skeptical about the new president’s ability and intentions, each in turn came to respect and trust him, even as he came to rely upon them.
Politics today – whether secular or sacred, whether in statehouses or church houses, not to mention in offices and neighborhoods and schools – is more polarizing than reconciling. Insecure leaders surround themselves with likeminded servants that enfranchise enmity instead of defeating it.
Lincoln kept one eye closed in prayer and the other eye fixed on the task of securing a just and lasting peace. True spiritual leadership in any setting can do no better than that, and must do no less.