Jack R. Van Ens: Obama approaches uncertaintly like Lincoln
Vail, CO, Colorado
Perilous times plagued our nation in the days before Lincoln and Obama took presidential oaths. Both realized one dynamic was certain: Uncertainty.
We know believers who assume strong faith cancels uncertainty. They’re unaware how sometimes, when a lamp of truth burns brightly to light the way ahead, its glare blinds the beholder’s eyesight. Cock-sure convictions, wrapped in certainty only God holds, show that a believer is foolish.
Lincoln and ardent admirer Obama reveal Christian faith that realistically accepts uncertainty. Prior to their inaugurals, they rejected rigid faith because instant solutions to knotty problems don’t magically appear. Nor did Lincoln and Obama pretend to pick up a messy world where heroes win every political victory and villains engineer each campaign defeat.
Neither of these presidents-elect spoke of a tidy world crammed with ethical certainties. Using Christian faith, they brooded over how to handle life stuffed with uncertainty.
Like these presidents-elect, Puritan theologian Jonathan Edwards sketched in A Treatise Concerning Religious Affections (1746) the contours of authentic faith. He bolstered Christ’s believers who lived in harrowing times, reciting: “Though you do not now see Christ, you believe in him and rejoice with unutterable and exalted joy” (I Peter 1:8).
Obama, like Lincoln, resonates with these insights. Our faith stands mute when severe trials endure. We don’t replace hardship with facile certitude. Obama greets uncertainty with vibrant curiosity his faith bestows. Unfettered by certainty, his faith exudes hope.
“I have been spending a lot of time reading Lincoln,” Obama told “60 Minutes” interviewer Steve Kroft (Nov. 16, 2008). “There is a wisdom there and a humility about his approach to government, even before he was president, that I just find very hopeful.” During his first press conference, President-elect Obama reaffirmed the respect Lincoln elicits. Responding to an inquiry about what books he was reading to “get ready for the job,” Obama cited only one author, “I have reread some of Lincoln’s writings, which are always an extraordinary inspiration.”
This fall I visited the Cooper Union near Manhattan’s Union Square, where on Feb. 27, 1860, Lincoln chastised pro-slavery and abolitionist critics for their smug certainty. Our 16th president’s faith forbade him assuming too much as he wrestled with slavery.
Lincoln realized pro-slavery forces had the better of the literal scriptural argument. Nowhere does the Bible outlaw slavery. Righteous abolitionists skirted biblical support for slavery, raising scriptural themes of mutual respect, love for humanity and individual worth. Both camps held an unbending, unyielding certainty making them right.
Lincoln walked a tightrope. He moderated his political position against slavery so that Southern states wouldn’t secede. But he didn’t waver in his moral revulsion against this scourge. “His eye kindled, his voice rang, his face shone and seemed to light up the whole assembly,” a Cooper Union listener wrote. “For an hour and a half he held the audience in the hallow of his hand.”
Lincoln’s Republican Party didn’t want to push abolitionist legislation so hard, inciting slaves to rebel. Prior to his presidency, Lincoln didn’t push to forcibly remove slavery from where it already existed. But he wouldn’t capitulate to a Southern certainty “to cease to call slavery wrong and join them in calling it right.” Lincoln ended with a rousing affirmation, a call to confidence and certainty in discouraging times, “Let us have faith that right makes might, and in that faith, let us, to the end, dare to do our duty as we understand it.” Notice his open stance to those with whom he disagreed.
Obama’s respect for Lincoln isn’t a political ploy to win easy votes from those who revere our 16th president. Lincoln is infused in our president-elect’s bones. Obama’s faith replicates much of Lincoln’s. Both scorned certainty as fool’s gold. Faith doesn’t bring convictions without reservations. It steels the soul to venture, to act nobly, and to press on when the way isn’t clear.
Cathleen Falsani, religion editor of the Chicago Sun-Times, spoke last April at Calvin College’s bi-annual Christian Faith and Writing Conference, which I attended. Her Wheaton College education prepared Falsani to dig deeply when interviewing public figures. She spoke with Obama about his faith on March 27, 2004, when he was running for the U.S. Senate in Illinois. Obama’s responses remind us how Lincoln handled convictions tempered by uncertainty. “So you got yourself born again?” Falsani asks. Obama replies:
“Yeah … I retain from my childhood and my experiences growing up suspicions of dogma. And I’m not somebody who is always comfortable with language that implies I’ve got a monopoly on the truth or that my faith is automatically transferable to others. I’m a big believer in tolerance. I think that religion at its best comes with a big dose of doubt. I’m suspicious of too much certainty in pursuit of understanding just because I think people are limited in their understanding. I think that, particularly as someone who’s now in the public realm and is a student of what brings people together and what drives them apart, there’s an enormous amount of damage done around the world in the name of religion and certainty.”
Faith doesn’t cancel uncertainty, but uses it as a prod to act with noble resolve. If we wait to be sure, we freeze in our tracks. Faith propels us forward.
The Rev. Dr. Jack R. Van Ens is a Presbyterian minister who heads the non-profit, tax exempt Creative Growth Ministries (www.thelivinghistory.com), which enriches Christian worship through lively storytelling and dramatic presentations aimed to make God’s history come alive. Van Ens’ book, “How Jefferson Made the Best of Bad Messes,” is available in local bookstores for $7.95.