Abraham Lincoln’s second inaugural address is one of the most remarkable documents in American history, a serious theological meditation by a president as well as a work of great literary art. Speaking March 4, 1865, to a deeply moved crowd just weeks before his death, Lincoln suggested that “this terrible war,” the Civil War, was God’s punishment of America for the sin of slavery.
The theology may have been overly Calvinistic, but Lincoln’s fundamental insight was profoundly correct and remains so today. The roots of our national crisis — or, more precisely, our interlocking crises — are moral and must be addressed as such. Neither the familiar triad of more money, more programs, and more institutions, nor changes in police policy and procedures measure up to the need.
Yes, money, programs, and institutions are necessary and police reform may be needed. But so is more attention to the moral dimension of our national trauma. And although there is no new Lincoln on the national horizon, we have a right to ask our leaders and those aspiring to leadership to begin thinking along those lines.
Here I am reminded of something another wise man, Msgr. Romano Guardini, said, “Man today holds power over things, but we can assert confidently that he does not yet have power over his own power.”
Msgr. Guardini, a distinguished German theologian, said that shortly after World War II, a conflict that witnessed the systematic firebombing of civilian populations, the mad pursuit of genocide epitomized by the Holocaust, and the first use of nuclear weapons. His analysis took the form of a frightening, prescient book called “The End of the Modern World.” (It provided much of the inspiration for my own book, “Eight Popes and the Crisis of Modernity.”)
In this year without a spring, events have repeatedly driven home the truth of Msgr. Guardini’s warning that our capacity for control over the material world far exceeds our capacity for controlling ourselves.
Hours after an unarmed black man died in the custody of Minneapolis police, two American astronauts were launched into space in a display of ultra-sophisticated technological genius. Protests — and in some places riots and looting — erupted across the nation after George Floyd’s death. Americans, nerves frayed by fear of a deadly virus and weeks of lockdown, trembled at the thought of what might happen next.
Msgr. Guardini would have understood all this. To the question “What can be done?” he gave this reply: “First of all, man must accept the full measure of his responsibility; but to be able to do this, he must regain his right relation to the truth of things, to the demands of his own deepest self, and finally to God.”
We are disastrously far removed from doing any of that. As a friend of mine, reflecting on recent events, put it, “We’ve been living off the fumes of a Christian culture, and we’re seeing now what happens when even the fumes evaporate. No logos, no ethos, no nothing.”
Msgr. Guardini, agreeing, would have added this further thought: At the heart of our national crisis something demonic is at work. Not “demonic” in a merely metaphorical sense, but demonic in full, literal truth — the handiwork of evil spirits who “rule man once he has abdicated his responsibilities.”
And then? Then, Msgr. Guardini held, it is much to be feared that “in the final analysis only violence will be used in an effort to solve the flood of problems which threaten to engulf humanity.”
God grant we turn back before it comes to that.