Monday, June 7, 2010

Still Looking for Abraham: Lincoln vs. Stephen Douglas on the Morality of Slavery (with Implications for the Debate about Homosexuality in American Today)

*I mentioned a few days ago that I’ve been reading Daniel Mark Epstein’s Lincoln and Whitman: Parallel Lives in Civil War Washington (NY: Random House, 2004).  I noted that I might have more to share about that book in a few days.

One of the points sustaining my attention as I read this informative study of the amazing connections between Lincoln and Whitman is the backdrop of national debate about the morality of slavery at the time Lincoln became president.  The book does a super job of sketching that backdrop and showing how it formed the basis for the president and poet’s connection to each other.  It’s impossible to be reminded of what that national moral debate entailed without thinking about our current national debate regarding the morality of gay lives and relationships.

As I’ve noted before, one of the themes on which my doctoral research (and, later, my book about American theologian Shailer Mathews) focused was a question that social gospel theologians (and Mathews in particular) wanted to push in the late 19th and early 20th century.  This is how societies change their moral minds.

That societies change their moral minds about issues like slavery or the oppression of women (the latter of concern to Mathews as a social gospeler) seems beyond doubt.  How they do so is an issue that demands attention.  

It’s one to which social gospel theologians like Shailer Mathews and Walter Rauschenbush gave serious thought, as they developed a theological framework around the concept of the reign of God that justified the collaboration of church members with secular groups working for social reform.  And which admitted that churches don’t have all the answers to controversial socio-political and moral issues, and can learn moral lessons from secular movements outside the church.

One of the insights I have taken from my study of the social gospel movement is that the outcome of culture-wide discussions to develop what the social gospel called a new “moral mind” about controversial issues is never predetermined.  Though we look back at the period in which the morality of slavery was debated and assume from our contemporary perspective that it was self-evident to many people and to most people of faith that slavery is a morally abhorrent practice, that was far from the case in the middle of the 19th century.

What we now take for granted, because the moral mind of our culture has decisively shifted regarding slavery, such that it would be hard to go back from our current consensus, people in the 19th century did not take for granted.  Not by any means.  It was as self-evident to large groups of Americans that slavery is not only warranted but commanded by the Judaeo-Christian scriptures, as it is self-evident to millions of believers today that the bible not only warrants but commands condemnation of those who are gay.

Abolitionists were, at the time Lincoln was elected, a minority voice in both American culture and religion—a voice crying in the wilderness.  The position that ultimately prevailed,following Lincoln’s emancipation of the slaves and the Civil War was not a predetermined outcome.  And it did not represent the majority opinion of people living either in slave or free states at the time Lincoln was elected.

In the middle of the debate about the morality of slavery, the majority of people were as confused, belligerent, deliberately obtuse, ill-informed, and swayed by the economic self-interest of powerful elites and the propaganda of those elites as they are today—or have been at any point in history.  As they are today, when it comes to culture-wide (and church-wide) discussion of the morality of gay lives and relationships.

In what happened in the 19th century, Epstein reminds readers, the quality of Lincoln’s leadership (and the clarity and depth of his moral vision) proved decisive.  Lincoln himself—his words, life, and tragic death—proved to be the decisive factor that began to tip the scales in a way that caused more and more Americans to recognize that the biblically warranted (and even biblically commanded) practice of slavery is morally untenable.

No matter how long it had been practiced.  No matter how virtuous those practicing it appeared, and how orthodox.  No matter what the bible said here and there about slavery—since the weight of the Jewish and Christian scriptures is clearly on the side of love, justice, and mercy.  Not on the side of slavery, even when some scriptural texts accept or justify this practice. 

And, of course, I cannot read what Epstein has to say on this point—what Epstein has to say about how the quality of Lincoln’s life and leadership tipped the balance—without thinking about where we are today.  About what we need, by way of national leadership, in order to make headway in our current nationwide cultural debate about the morality of gay lives and relationships.

Epstein puts the point as follows, as he discusses Lincoln’s debates with the wildly popular Stephen A. Douglas, who could easily have won the 1860 presidential election.  Who could easily have won his party’s nomination and the election, had it not been for one crucial quality that Lincoln had and Douglas lacked.

Epstein notes that Douglas threw a “ticking bomb” into the national political scene and our nationwide debate about the morality of slavery when he developed the doctrine of popular sovereignty, which argued that each new state should decide for itself whether to be a slave or free state (p. xiii).  That each new state should be permitted to vote on and decide by popular consensus whether human beings should be enslaved or not.

In Epstein’s view, Douglas (who was not by any means an advocate of slavery) took this position for one reason and one reason alone: it was a matter of political expediency for him to do so.  Douglas took the politically rewarding but morally rotten course of encouraging state-by-state votes on whether people of color should be treated as human beings or as chattel because he knew that he would obtain wide support when he took this position.

Lincoln refused to go there.  In Epstein’s view there was one “illuminating determinant” in Lincoln’s interaction with Douglas that moved the former to center stage and the latter to the shadows.  That determinant was as follows: “Douglas lacked a guiding moral principle, a sense of vision.  This put him at a severe disadvantage in debate against the political visionary who would topple him, Abraham Lincoln” (xii).

And, of course, as I read this, I cannot help asking: where is our Abraham today, as one powerful centrist politician after another proclaims that the states ought to decide by popular vote whether gay human beings should have the right to marry?  The Stephen A. Douglases abound. 

But I’m still looking for Abraham.

*Blogger has had some serious problems today, and I’m only now able to log in and post.  Meanwhile, in the time in which I couldn’t post about it here, I’ve posted a spin-off of it at Eduardo Peñalver’s latest thread at Commonweal, where a rather refractory discussion of the story of Mr. Limbaugh’s recent wedding has been underway the last two days.