Lincoln: The man, the movie, the machinations

  • Article by: EDMUND N. SANTURRI
  • Updated: November 25, 2012 - 7:15 PM

The war leader's religion is not fully represented in the film.

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Steven Spielberg, director of the movie, "Lincoln" speaks at a ceremony to mark the 149th anniversary of President Abraham Lincoln's delivery of the Gettysburg Address at Soldier's National Cemetery in Gettysburg, Pa., Monday, Nov. 19, 2012.

Photo: Patrick Semansky, Associated Press

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One can hardly quarrel with the film critics. Steven Spielberg's "Lincoln" is a cinematic masterpiece, and Daniel Day-Lewis, in the title role, delivers a bravura performance depicting the 16th president as a quintessentially deft politician and preternaturally wise statesman -- as an anguished-yet-resigned, grim-yet-playful, just-yet-generous, stern-yet-loving, flawed-yet-virtuous, utterly human-yet-transcendent figure, operating at a crucial juncture in the nation's history.

The film should also please historians, generally. While it takes some dramatic liberties with the facts of Lincoln's life and the circumstances surrounding passage of the constitutional amendment that ended slavery, "Lincoln" mainly gets to the historical truth of these things.

Still, on one historical matter, Abraham Lincoln's religion, the film simply misses the mark.

To be sure, there are occasional references to the president's religious views in Spielberg's "Lincoln." The opening soldiers' recitation of the Gettysburg Address includes the obligatory "this nation, under God," and Day-Lewis's powerful reenactment of the Second Inaugural Address faithfully quotes both the passage about the Civil War as God's just punishment of the nation for slavery and the iconic lines: "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 ..." There is also the scene in which Lincoln shares with his wife his desire to visit Jerusalem, and another in which he wryly bemoans God's task in having to end slavery with an instrument as unmanageable as the House of Representatives.

But overall these religious references seem like throwaways, sidebars or boilerplate, largely incidental to the development of Lincoln's character or the movie's narrative plot line. The film never brings home just how intimately Lincoln's moral convictions about slavery and his political convictions about the character and course of the Civil War were tied to his religious sensibilities.

Lincoln was no ordinary religious believer. Indeed, there is every reason to think that early in his life he was a skeptic who mocked the conventional pieties of institutional religion. Yet Lincoln's religious views changed as he grew older. His loss of his son Eddie at a very young age and his interactions with Springfield, Ill., preacher-theologian James D. Smith in the 1850s almost certainly had something to do with this change, as did the loss of a second son, Willie, in 1862.

However, Lincoln's religious convictions also evolved in tandem with his unfolding experience as president during the Civil War. Increasingly, he came to believe in a providential God intimately involved in the war. At the beginning of the conflict, he regarded the Union's preservation as the belligerency's central constitutional and moral purpose. But the unanticipated length and difficulty of the war prompted him later to view it as God's judgment on the nation for the evil of slavery, and he began to discern a new purpose in the war -- emancipation.

Lincoln inched toward this discernment in an unpublished "Meditation on the Divine Will" discovered after the president's death by his secretary John Hay. In it, a spiritually troubled man privately speculates whether God's purpose for the war "is something different from the purpose of either party" and whether the war's stubborn resistance to conclusion pointed to that other divine purpose.

Moreover, independent diary entries by two different Lincoln cabinet members record his declaring at a meeting in 1862 that he interpreted the Union's Antietam victory as a sign that God favored his issuing the Emancipation Proclamation at that moment in the conflict. For Lincoln, emancipation became a providentially ordained project that transformed a just war into a holy war and eventually legitimated the use of patronage power to buy the congressional votes necessary for passage of the 13th Amendment ending slavery.

Today, most Americans would be uncomfortable with a president who looked for divine mandates in human events and even more uncomfortable if a president shaped wartime strategies according to those mandates. I suspect this is why there is little indication in Spielberg's "Lincoln" of the religious Lincoln that history renders. Yet one cannot fully comprehend Lincoln the president without comprehending Lincoln the man, in all his spiritual depth.

Spielberg's "Lincoln" is an artistic tour de force. By all means see it. But for the complete historical picture, for the religious soul of Lincoln the president, you'll need to look elsewhere.

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Edmund N. Santurri is a professor of religion and philosophy and director of the Ethical Issues and Normative Perspectives Program at St. Olaf College in Northfield, Minn. He has taught a seminar on "The Religious Sensibility of Abraham Lincoln."

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