Absent Angels

Far too much of the present public discourse and actions by those empowered by the public trust is divisive, strident and arguably hateful. All is not sweetness and light. Yet, thankfully, we in the United States are not just more than 150 years removed from the outbreak of a civil war, but a people granted the salutary lessons of history.

When President Abraham Lincoln gave his first inaugural address on March 4, 1861, the states of South Carolina, Mississippi, Florida, Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana and Texas had already seceded, with more to follow. The South still imagined it could accomplish the separation without bloodshed. The new president already imagined the outcome, but in initial planning determined that the seceding states should be the ones to initiate conflict. In other words, there was jockeying for the moral high road.

Lincoln’s address was conciliatory. “We are not enemies, but friends,” he said to the pre-public address system crowd that gathered close. “We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained, it must not break our bonds of affection. The mystic chords of memory . . . will yet swell the chorus of the Union, when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.” A wonderful hope in the innate goodness of humanity. Theologically wrong, of course. The heart is “desperately wicked” (Jeremiah 17:9). But we can of course respond to that Better Spirit and His angels, who are always calling us to kindness.

Again, to the present. The public debate is clearly toxic. Party loyalists on both sides and administration figures regularly call the other “the enemy,” “traitors,” and “non-American.” While political scientists in Russia have laid out a future scenario of a collapsing U.S., riven by civil war, breaking up into three regions and falling under foreign influence (not just Internet meddling, one presumes), we seem less headed for that than a dystopian drift toward a cold party autocracy. We badly need those “better angels.”

One of the latest skirmishes in the power play over immigration had the U.S. president threatening to dump would-be asylum detainees en masse upon so-called sanctuary cities. The last time such logic was put into play was in World War II. Taking a cue from the private strategizing of President Roosevelt and Prime Minister Winston Churchill, both the American and English authorities pursued a stubborn policy of refusing to accept Jewish refugees, on the dubious theory that this would cause Hitler to choke on the Jewish problem and inhibit his war effort. It is possible that this hastened the final “final solution” as much as did Himmler’s murderous impatience.

Great powers and great leaders have often proved insensible to the human reality of both enemies and “lower” elements of their own citizenry. Unfortunately, in our present case, immigrants are seen both as enemies and a lower form of humanity. Obviously, a wrong deduction to make for a people descended from European colonizers who arrived with a flag in one hand and a Bible in the other. We need those better angels.

I love to seize on metaphors, and have to comment that in invoking the “better angels” of our natures, Lincoln presumed the “worse angels.” The trouble is we are not always as well equipped as might be hoped in knowing the difference.

Case in point, the figure of a woman atop the Capitol in Washington, D.C. It’s a big neck stretch to look up nearly 300 feet to the top of that building and take note of the 19.5-foot, 15,000-pound, bronze allegorical figure of a woman. Few bother, and, I hazard to guess, fewer yet know anything about its history.

Thomas Crawford’s Statue of Freedom was completed in 1863, during the Civil War; but its origin goes back to preliminary drawings in 1855. The figure was intended to emulate the Greek Athena and Roman repetition of the female deity as Minerva. As originally laid out, the statue was to feature a “Phrygian” cap, equated with a pileus cap, which was later copied during the French Revolution. Today she wears a war helmet. Reason for the change: then Secretary of War Jefferson Davis (yes, the same who became president of the Confederacy!).

Davis knew his history. He knew, and made it known that he knew, that in the ancient Roman ceremony of manumission, the slaves worse the pileus cap as the magistrate touched them with the vindicta rod to formalize freedom. This he would not have. Americans were already free! At least the ones who mattered to him.

I admit that in my original studies of the Civil War, I inclined to the oft-stated view that the slavery question was not the question, and emerged so only later in the war, with the Emancipation Proclamation as a polarizing device. But a speech by Confederate vice president Alexander H. Stephens, given at the Savannah, Georgia, Athenaeum on March 21, 1861, close on the April 12 firing on Fort Sumter, all too clearly laid out the position of the Confederacy. It was called the “Cornerstone” speech because he maintained it was founded on the fact in nature of racial superiority. It had a new constitution, which contained all the old rights back to Magna Charta, with some “improvements” that “put to rest forever” the “fundamentally wrong” ideas of the original Constitution, which “rested upon the assumption of the equality of races.” But as Stephens outlined it, this new constitution “amply secures all our ancient [the loaded word here] rights, franchises, and privileges. . . . The great principle of religious liberty, which was the honor and pride of the old Constitution, is still maintained and secured. All the essentials of the old Constitution, which have endeared it to the hearts of the American people, have been preserved and perpetuated.”

What is so dangerous about the current, largely incited immigrant emergency is that much of the language if not the ideology reminds of this sad angel period of U.S. history. Disease-ridden criminals who are coming to claim what is ours, who threaten our livelihood (even as they perform our menial labor) and can with impunity be detained, families torn apart forever and dumped where we choose, is as good a parallel to past evil as one could come up with.

It has been some years since I started mentioning George Orwell’s futuristic fable 1984. He set it in 1984, hoping to warn of the future. But the modern calendar moves on as divinely as Omar Khayyam’s 1,000-year-old moving finger or Daniel’s even older finger on the palace wall, and ancient warnings can become today’s reality. Today the ministry of truth is rapidly becoming fake news. Day becomes night, and while we may not be as inclined to actually rewrite the old Constitution, it is worth remembering the Old Testament dicta that only when written in the heart do laws truly become established.

Again, allow me to look to a Bible analogy concerning our moral and legal plight. A certain lawyer asked Jesus what was intended to be a trick question: “Master, which is the great commandment in the law? Jesus said unto him, Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind. This is the first and great commandment. And the second is like unto it, Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself. On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets” (Matthew 22:36-40).

Ancient wisdom for today, to be sure. I took special note that Stephens bragged on the continued security of religious liberty in the Confederate constitution. But, of course, he was actually making mockery of the true principles of religious liberty for all. Today we see an unprecedented involvement in public policy by religious factions. They are taking on a fearsome responsibility. I do hope they are moved by their better angels to cry “liberty” throughout the land.


Article Author: Lincoln E. Steed

Lincoln E. Steed is the editor of Liberty magazine, a 200,000 circulation religious liberty journal which is distributed to political leaders, judiciary, lawyers and other thought leaders in North America. He is additionally the host of the weekly 3ABN television show "The Liberty Insider," and the radio program "Lifequest Liberty."