Faith & Values
The award-winning movie “Lincoln,” directed by Steven Spielberg, arrived in time for the 150th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation, Jan. 1, 1863, which freed all the slaves within the rebelling Confederate States.
The crux of the film is Lincoln’s steady resolve not to let this hard-fought freedom slip back into the hands of those who would revive slavery. Lincoln knew that the proclamation was a wartime measure. It could be reversed. So he was determined to solidify it through the 13th Amendment to the Constitution, which Congress ultimately passed on Jan. 31, 1865.
Daniel Day-Lewis portrays Lincoln as a talented politician. He lacked social polish, but he had great intelligence, canny wit and a profound knowledge of human nature. Yet the film misses one essential mark — Lincoln’s religious convictions.
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Traces of Lincoln’s profound faith in the Almighty remain, such as Day-Lewis’ moving re-enactment of the Second Inaugural Address, which includes Lincoln’s reference to the Civil War as perhaps God’s just punishment of the nation for slavery.
And, of course, it includes the memorable 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.”
Further, on a buggy ride with his wife, Mary (Sally Field), he shares his desire to visit Jerusalem.
But overall, these religious traces are incidental to the film. Spielberg never focuses on how Lincoln’s moral convictions arose out of his religious sensibilities.
Lincoln was no ordinary religious believer. In his early life, he was a skeptic and mocked conventional religion. But later his faith deepened, especially with the loss of his two young sons, first Eddie and then Willie.
His faith evolved even more as president amid the violent trauma of the war. The unanticipated length of the war prompted him 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.
For Lincoln, emancipation became a providentially ordained project. In the second inaugural he proclaims:
“Fondly do we hope, fervently do we pray, that this mighty scourge of war may speedily pass away. Yet, if God wills that it continue until all the wealth piled by the bondsman’s two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk … still it must be said ‘the judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether.’ ”
Spielberg’s “Lincoln” is a tour de force. Yet it cannot capture the fullness of Lincoln’s character because it cannot comprehend his spiritual depth.
We know that it took another 100 years for Lincoln’s legacy to reach fulfillment in the 1960s through the courageous, faith-filled revolution brought about by the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
Last week the Rev. Patricia Hunter, one of my counterparts in this Faith and Values column, beautifully described King’s nonviolent legacy (“King Holiday Brings Timely Reminder of Faith, Nonviolence,”Seattle Times, Jan 19). She said, “Dr. King believed all change could come about through nonviolent action and peaceful protest.”
Then she convincingly added: “We are in the midst of a major debate about how to keep our children safe from gun violence. The National Rifle Association would have us believe the only way to prevent violence is to have everyone armed for violence. Dr. King would find that line of thinking absurd. Violence begets violence.”
We, in our day, are engaged in a great civil debate. Will we have the courage and faith to arrest the flow of violence and to build upon a foundation of reconciliation “with malice toward none, with charity for all”? The legacy of Lincoln, the dream of King continues, but it needs our own religious conviction, our voice and our hands, to bring it to fulfillment.
Fr. Patrick Howell SJ is the rector (religious superior) of the Jesuit Community at Seattle University and professor of pastoral theology. Readers may send feedback to firstname.lastname@example.org.