March 4, 1865 started as a gloomy and overcast day, but no amount of rain or mud could dampen the spirits of those assembled in Washington for the second inauguration of President Abraham Lincoln. Four long years of civil war had taken its toll on the nation, and although one and a half-million Americans lie dead or wounded; this was a day of celebration. The Union armies were on the march, the Confederacy was in retreat, and the end of the war was in sight. As thousands gathered on the mall awaiting the appearance of their Commander in Chief, they speculated about the contents of his address. Many expected to hear about the progress of the war and the inevitable victory, while others expected him to pay tribute to those who had sacrificed to preserve the Union. Some wanted to know his plans for reconstruction and reunification, and others pondered what he’d say about emancipation and the end of slavery. Although most heard what they expected, few, heard what they wanted.
Abraham Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address ranks among the greatest speeches in American history. It’s only seven hundred words long and took less than seven minutes to deliver, but its eloquence is unequaled. Although Lincoln considered it his best speech, it’s not a speech one would expect to hear from a sitting President because it was more of a homily than a speech. As Fredrick Douglas described, “it was a sacred effort, more like a sermon than like a state paper.” In the brevity of the address, Lincoln mentions God fourteen times, quotes scripture four times and invokes prayer three times. It is a truly remarkable speech, something that is unimaginable today. However, more startling than Lincoln’s invocation of the Almighty, is the content of his message.
In order to appreciate the significance of Lincoln’s Address, you need to understand the context in which it was delivered. One out of every twenty people living in the United States was either killed or wounded during the Civil War. Today, that would equate to fifteen and a half million Americans dead or wounded. There wasn’t a person living in the country, or assembled on the mall that day, that hadn’t suffered a loss. However, knowing this, Lincoln told the American people that we had reaped what we had sown. At the heart of his message was the assertion that the war was God’s punishment for the sin of slavery. That is truly astonishing! Can you imagine the President of the United States standing before the American people, telling them that their pain and suffering was divine retribution for their immorality? Where would Lincoln get such an idea?
Lincoln studied the Bible and was familiar with the divine retribution of the Old Testament, where God brought punishment upon the wicked, like in the great flood of Noah, the destruction of Sodom and Gomora, and the ten plagues of Egypt. He also studied history and understood the retribution that befalls decadent and corrupt societies, like the collapse of the Babylonian and Greek Empires, and the fall of Rome. Lincoln was a practical and pragmatic politician and selected his words very carefully. He knew that his message would not be well received, but delivered it because he believed it to be true.
Is Lincoln right, does God smite the sinful and the wicked? It would be difficult to argue the divine retribution of the Old Testament; earthquakes, volcanoes, and floods are natural phenomena, and not the acts of an angry deity. However, the premise that corrupt and decadent nations tend to self-destruct, deserves consideration. During the twentieth-century, both Germany and Japan pursued ideologies of evil until the righteous of the world rose up to destroy them, and the Soviet Union oppressed half of Europe, but eventually imploded under the weight of its own depravity. So history tends to support Lincoln’s premise. Whether or not it’s divine retribution, or merely the natural consequence of corruption is a matter of perspective.
A recent Gallup poll indicates that seventy-five percent of Americans believe their government is corrupt, and that society’s morals and ethics are declining. Surveys indicate that most Americans have been dissatisfied with the direction the country has been moving in since the early seventies. So what happened during that period to create this sense of pessimism? First, was Watergate, and second was Roe vs. Wade.
Watergate shattered the American people’s faith in government. Richard Nixon abused the power of his office by using the Federal Bureau of Investigation, the Central Intelligence Agency and the Internal Revenue Service to target and harass his political adversaries, and committed a felony when he destroyed evidence and obstructed justice. Eventually, he was forced to resign when the American people demanded his removal, and Congress threatened him with impeachment.
In Roe vs. Wade, the Supreme Court ruled that a woman has the right to terminate her pregnancy up until viability, the point at which the unborn child could potentially live outside the mother’s womb. This ruling reshaped the American political spectrum by dividing the nation and driving people into either the pro-choice, or pro-life camps. Pro-choice advocates argue that prior to viability, an unborn child is not a human being and therefore, not entitled to the protection of the state, and that its right to life cannot supersede the woman’s right to choose. Pro-life advocates argue the opposite. Of course, what camp is right depends upon when human life actually begins, but unfortunately, no one knows with absolute certainty, just when that occurs.
We know that the human gestation period is forty weeks long, and that at five weeks the baby’s heart begins to beat, at six weeks, it has facial features, and at ten weeks, its vital organs begin to function. At fifteen weeks the baby can see light, at sixteen weeks, ultrasound can determine its sex, and at twenty weeks, it reaches viability. Viability was initially at twenty-eight weeks, but advancements in medicine have reduced that period. So again, no one knows with absolute certainty when human life begins. However, we do know with absolute certainty, that at the moment of conception; human DNA is present, and that the process of life has begun, and that when you terminate that process, you terminate a life that’s progressing.
It’s estimated that there have been more than fifty-million abortions performed in the United States since Roe vs. Wade. If human life actually begins at conception, then we are guilty of a mass murder that is five-times greater than the Nazi holocaust. I don’t know what divine retribution we’d face, but “as was said three thousand years ago, so still it must be said, the judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether.”