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.