Lincoln, Washington, Obama
Published: Sunday | January 25, 2009
Martin Henry, Contributor
Obama is in. Bush is out. Hope and change are the watchwords.
The Gleaner's cartoonist, Las May, got it so right on Thursday. The inauguration was more of a coronation. More and more, I am convinced that people hunger for royalty, not just leadership. Just look at Elizabeth. While constitutional republicists detest her role as head of the Jamaican state, the vast majority of regular folk have adored her on state visits. But Obama is more than king of a single state; he is more like emperor of the world.
Obama's inauguration followed a Lincoln theme. But it might not have been such a good idea to take the presidential oath on Lincoln's Bible. Lincoln was ugly with a scraggly beard. His enemies even called him a baboon. Lincoln's wife, Mary was the Queen of Nag. Lincoln's enemies gave him one of the hardest times that any US president has ever had. And Lincoln was Republican, the party of black emancipation.
Of course, the comparison which Obama wished to draw between himself and Lincoln was with Lincoln as the Great Emancipator. But Lincoln governed a deeply divided America, which engaged in a terrible civil war over slavery. And he was assassinated.
Although not a conventional Christian by mid-19th century standards, Lincoln not only swore by the Bible for inauguration but read it, was guided by its principles, and prayed to a sovereign God for hope and comfort and guidance. Obama, apparently, only regards religion as an important political tool to be used conveniently in balancing interest groups. So, homosexual bishop, Gene Robinson, prayed for him on the Sunday before the coronation; and anti-homosexual pastor, Rick Warren, prayed for him at the coronation.
In Lincoln's America, God was not an issue. Virtually everyone believed in some fashion in the Judaeo-Christian version of God. Within that consensus, some were at one extreme deists who believed that God was minding His business somewhere and that they should mind theirs in the pursuit of happiness according to the Declaration of Independence. At the other end was the emergence of a whole set of passionately engaged new religions.
James Madison, the second president, remarked that the Constitution had been designed to govern a religious people and was wholly inadequate to govern any other. What he meant was that constitutional arrangements presumed a moral consensus resting on religious foundations, which, at the time, essentially meant Christianity. But there was to be no 'establishment of religion', that is, a state Church [First Amendment]. America has always been an experiment and we will see how well the Madison hypothesis holds as history unfolds.
Invoked at coronation
Founding President George Washington, whom the 44th president invoked at the coronation by anecdote, was of the same view. In his farewell address, which was far more graciously received by a grateful people than George W. Bush's, he propounded that "of all the dispositions and habits which lead to political prosperity, Religion and morality are indispensable supports.
"The mere politician, equally with the pious man, ought to respect and to cherish them. Where is the security for property, for reputation, for life [including that of the unborn] if the sense of religious obligation deserts the oaths which are the instruments of investigation in the Courts of Justice? And let us with caution indulge the supposition, that morality can be maintained without religion ... Reason and experience both forbid us to expect that national morality can prevail to the exclusion of religious principle."
Obama's America is more divided than Lincoln's America. Slavery was the Great Divider in Lincoln's America. Now everything divides Americans into myriad interest groups battling to control the political process and system. Lincoln, in no uncertain terms, regarded slavery as a moral issue, an affront to God and man and to the Declaration of Independence, which heralded that all men were created equal - by God. Many, including Lincoln himself, felt that the Civil War was divine judgement against the great evil of slavery tolerated too long. But a president like George W. Bush, who sees issues through moral spectacles, is today a dodo bird, both stupid and extinct.
Perhaps on no point with any greater significance is Barack Obama not an Abraham Lincoln than on their views of man and the State. Lincoln, like the founding fathers, saw human nature as sinful and depraved and prone to evil. Many serious scholars have identified John Calvin as the real 'founder' of the American Republic. But people today find it strange that President Bush could use 'evil' as a political label in this enlightened 21st century. The people whom Lincoln governed would not.
The primary duty of government and the State, in Lincoln's view, was to restrain the wicked propensities of sinful humans and to promote justice and social harmony through just laws. There is no doubt whatsoever that the 'Calvinist' Lincoln and Washington would find many of the policy positions of the humanist Obama flatly immoral.
Government as promoter
When Obama says it is not whether government is big or small but whether it works, what he means, like most modern politicians, is government working for the perfecting of perfectible humans and society through positivist law for social and economic 'change'. Essentially curing a disease. Government as restrainer has been replaced by government as promoter and engineer.
But to whose design should the new social order be built? This is the fundamental dilemma facing any leader today. When Obama promised 'change', that word has substantially different meanings to the various factions [interest groups] in the complicated alliances which brought him to power. President Washington and others of the American founding fathers saw and warned against the dangers of factions in the republic. And the late Arthur Shenfield, a British economist and lawyer, wrote a spectacular passage on the destructive impact of faction on democracy and government: "The process of democratic degeneration," he argued, "displays itself as the general interest becomes subordinated to various sectional group interests, so that the legislature ceases to be a forum for the determination of the general interest but becomes an arena in which special interests jostle and bargain for the favours of the state ... ."
It is not the interests of the majority which prevails, but the desires of fluctuating coalitions of minorities constantly bargaining to get a place at the public feeding trough. But there is great animosity among them. The system is unstable. There is mounting discontent.
In time, such a system must collapse, and unmanageably chaotic 'democracy' yields to stabilising totalitarianism. Lincoln and Washington understood this. I doubt if Obama does. The supreme challenge will be to balance factions and postpone the degeneration of republican government as the founding fathers conceived it on moral foundations. Obama is supremely confident that he can. And the whole world believes him.
Martin Henry is a communications consultant who may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or email@example.com.