The Perplexing Questions of the Gettysburg Address

As you probably know, today marks the 150th anniversary of Abraham Lincoln delivering the Gettysburg Address at the dedication of the Soldiers’ National Cemetery in Gettysburg, PA. It is one of the finest speeches on the American idea. The way Lincoln reclaimed the Declaration of Independence as the founding spiritual document of the US set the nation on a new trajectory. At that point in the US, the Declaration did not hold its current prominent place in the public mind since it had little ongoing legal application. (The Declaration had fulfilled its functional purpose in separating the US from Britain. It does not give shape to the government like the Constitution does.) One wonders if Martin Luther King, Jr. would have referred to the Declaration in his “I Have a Dream” speech if Lincoln had not first rejuvenated its conceptual importance. The Gettysburg Address is also an exemplar of succinct oratory. One marvels that Lincoln could cover so much ground with such depth in just 272 words.

In recent years I’ve reread the speech several times—granted, its brevity encourages return trips. Like many children I had to memorize the speech in grade school, but back then its meaning remained largely out of my reach, except for perhaps its famous closing line: “And that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.” Last year I was at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, DC, and read the speech engraved into the marble walls of the Memorial.

While in Washington, that final line struck me and unsettled me, particularly as a Christian. Perhaps the overtly religious atmosphere had something to do with it. Architect Henry Bacon’s design for the building follows a Greek temple—in fact the epitaph above Lincoln calls the memorial a “temple” and says Lincoln “saved” the nation. Daniel Chester French’s statue of Lincoln demands parallels to the Statue of Zeus at Olympia. Though I will admit I was under the spell of the majestic architecture and design of the National Mall.

It was not the notion of “a government of the people, by the people, for the people” that unsettled me. I believe that is a fine ideal to seek. Lincoln’s call and hope that this government “shall not perish from the earth” caused my discomfort.

When we think historically and consider the fate of just about every nation that has ever existed, Lincoln’s statement comes across as delusional or hubristic. All nations and empires eventually fall. Today’s states are merely waiting their turn to end. That fact does not mean nations are unimportant or we shouldn’t seek to make our country more just. We simply shouldn’t think the US will somehow escape the life cycle that every nation experiences.

Even more troubling for the Christ followers, Lincoln’s hope for an imperishable government and nation seems to run counter to the Christian belief that God’s kingdom alone is eternal. Take Psalm 145.13a, “Your kingdom is an everlasting kingdom, and your dominion endures throughout all generations” (NRSV). I wonder if or to what extent we should celebrate Lincoln’s dream, for if we were to put our hopes in the US lasting forever, we will eventually find great disappointment.

The questions must also be raised as to who is responsible for the nation’s perpetuity and to what extent are they to protect it? Lincoln knew better than most the terrible human cost to keep the Union together. It is in the willingness—necessity, perhaps?—for a democracy to engage in violence to protect its existence that we also see the contrast with God’s kingdom, which is established and grows through love, self-sacrifice, and the defeat of death.

I believe as an American Christian I am something of a resident alien. I do not think it is entirely contradictory to work for a “more perfect union” in the US while keeping my hopes and commitments ultimately with Jesus Christ. I see being a good citizen of the nation where I reside as part of my Christian duty, though with the disclaimer that my allegiance will primarily lie with God’s kingdom, even if that allegiance conflicts with the demands or values of the US.

As I reflect again on the Gettysburg Address, I wonder how as a Christian I should engage Lincoln’s beautifully articulated ideals. I support shaping this nation into one where we can truly celebrate all people being created equal. This is certainly “unfinished work” that requires “increased devotion,” though I believe we must place such devotion in the right context. I cannot place my hopes in our government never perishing from the earth. That comes too close to idolatry. I will instead place my hopes in an actually eternal kingdom and work to pursue the values and purposes of that kingdom. It is in striving first for God’s kingdom that I believe the US will actually become more like a nation where all people are created equal.

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6 thoughts on “The Perplexing Questions of the Gettysburg Address

  1. Hi Tyler,
    I enjoy your thoughtful comments! Mostly I agree with you here. However, it seems to me that you may be reading too much into the perplexing passage you refer to. For example, if I read the words of the address, it seems to me that he is not saying “this government shall not perish from the earth”. I don’t think he is referring necessarily to the United States except to the extent that it serves as an example of a nation that tries to be a “government by the people, for the people” (a relatively new concept at the time of the country’s formation). My interpretation is that he is reflecting on this form of government in this world and this life and that he believes that it is vastly superior to other tyrannical governments that have existed and ruled over their subjects throughout history. He hopes that this idea of government of the people by the people will not perish from the earth as it indeed might if we don’t hold it dear He is clearly honoring the dead who fought for this nation to make such a thing even possible. I also believe he is thinking about this in the current context and not “kingdom come” when Christ returns. As a result, I do not find Lincoln’s great speech perplexing at all. I agree with you that we have a sort of dual citizenship as grateful citizens of the United States and grateful citizens of Christ’s kingdom and in whom we place all our hope and I don’t think that Lincoln himself would deny this. This same thing is also true of the church and our family. We are members of the church we belong to but this is secondary to our membership in Christ’s kingdom.

    Steve.

    • Steve, I think you offer a possible and fair reading of what Lincoln meant by the closing line. Taken by itself, the very end could seem to refer only to a democratic form of government in a general way. But the context of the speech — as well as the “this nation” in the clause just before the close — would refer to the US in particular. The Union went into the Civil War to specifically preserve the Union as a democratic republic, not to preserve democratic republicanism in general. I don’t think Lincoln could or would tell the audience their sons and brothers died to preserve a theory of political science.

      • Thanks for your thoughtful response Tyler. I believe you and I are in violent agreement. I do not believe that President Lincoln would have disagreed with you. From what I understand, he had become essentially a Christian himself. But I think in this instance I believe he was speaking in the context of this world and not “kingdom come” and he saw this country (the US) as an aspiration towards the ultimate and highest form of earthly government. Not necessarily the embodiment but the aspiration. Given the situation he was addressing I believe we can grant him this excess.

  2. Tyler, I think you cannot ignore the following words of the speech “Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth, upon this continent, a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal. Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation so conceived, and so dedicated, can long endure”. The key to understanding the remainder of the speech is “that nation [the US], or any nation so conceived” [any] -“dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal”. To me, this is the heart of the speech and provides the context for the remaining words.

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