We once had a unifying national story, celebrated each Thanksgiving. It was an Exodus story. Americans are the people who escaped oppression, crossed a wilderness and are building a promised land. The Puritans brought this story with them. Each wave of immigrants saw themselves in this story. The civil rights movement embraced this story.
But we have to admit that many today do not resonate with this story. This story was predicated on the unity of the American people. But if you are under 45, you were probably taught an American history that, realistically, emphasizes division – between the settlers and the natives, Founders and their slaves, bosses and the workers, whites and people of color. It’s harder for many today to believe this is a promised land. It seems promised for the privileged few but has led to marginalization for the many.
The narratives that appeal today are predicated on division and disappointment. The multicultural narrative, dominant in every schoolhouse, says that America is divided into different biological groups and the status of each group is defined by the oppression that it has suffered. The populist narrative, dominant in the electorate, says that America is divided between the virtuous common people and the corrupt and stupid elites.
Today, we have no common national narrative, no shared way of interpreting the flow of events. Without a common story, we don’t know what our national purpose is. We have no common set of goals or ideals.
We need a new national narrative.
One way to identify one is to go back to one of the odd features of our history. We are good to our enemies after wartime. After the revolution, we quickly became allies with Britain. After World War I, Woodrow Wilson was humane to our European enemies. After World War II, America generously rebuilt Germany and Japan.
Elsewhere, enmities last for centuries. But not here. Why? Because we have a national predilection for fresh starts. Coming to this country is for many people a new beginning. We turn every new presidential administration, every new sports season, every graduation ceremony into a new beginning. It’s said Americans don’t settle arguments, we just leave them behind.
The story of America, then, can be interpreted as a series of redemptions, of injury, suffering and healing fresh starts. Look at the mottos on our Great Seal: “A New Order for the Ages” and “Out of Many, One.” In the 18th century divisions between the colonists were partially healed. In the 19th century divisions between the free and enslaved were partially healed. In the 20th, America partially healed the divisions between democracy and totalitarianism. In the 21st, we have healing fresh starts still to come.
The great sermon of redemption and reconciliation is Lincoln’s Second Inaugural.
This is a speech of tremendous intellectual humility. None of us anticipated this conflict, or its magnitude. All of us “looked for an easier triumph.” None of us are fully in control. “Let us judge not that we be not judged.”
This is a speech of great moral humility. Slavery, Lincoln says, was not a Southern institution, it was an American institution, weaving through our common history for 250 years. The scourge of war, which purges this sin, falls on both sides. Lincoln fought any sense of self-righteous superiority the Northerners might harbor. He rejected any thought that God is a tribal God. He put us all into the same category of ambiguity and fallenness.
The speech is a great reconciling speech. The words recurring through it are “we” and “all.” “All thoughts were anxiously directed to an impending civil war. All dreaded it, all sought to avert it … Both parties deprecated war.”
Lincoln sets the course for mutual forgiveness, not the cheap forgiveness that carries no weight but the kind that contains all the stages of proper rigorous forgiveness: mercy, judgment, confession, penitence, reconciliation and re-trust.
He sets the course for political flexibility and pragmatism. We cannot really understand the course of events or God’s will. Therefore, we can’t be certain of our notion of what’s right, or rigid in clinging to abstract principle or dogmatic ideology. Everything should be open to experiment, flexibility and maneuvering.
The final prayer heralds a new beginning: “With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation’s wounds … to achieve lasting peace among all nations.”
In his speech, Lincoln realistically acknowledges the divisions and disappointments that plague the nation. But he does not accept the inevitability of a house divided. He combines Christian redemption with the multiculturalist’s love of diversity. In one brilliant stroke, Lincoln deprives Christian politics of the chauvinism and white identitarianism that we see now on the evangelical right. He fills the vacuum of moral vision that we see now on the relativist left. He shows how American particularism always points to universalism – how the specific features of our settler’s history and culture point to vision of communion for all mankind. This is a story we can join and live into.