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Thursday, Feb. 5, 2004 10:09 pm

Abraham, Martin, and the little corporal

Abraham, Martin, and the little corporal


When the Abraham Lincoln Association invited Dr. Martin E. Marty to speak at their annual banquet on Feb. 12, they tied no strings to his invitation. Marty, a distinguished scholar of American religion and history at the University of Chicago, didn't even have to mention Lincoln.

But he wanted to.

When, as a National Humanities Medal recipient, Marty had been asked what should go into the Millennial Time Capsule, he had recommended Lincoln's Second Inaugural as "the best fusion of politics, faith, and hope." And he's been convinced since grad school that "Abraham Lincoln was America's greatest theologian."

Talking about Lincoln wasn't a problem. But what could he say?

Marty's no slouch. He has written more than 45 books and received 72 honorary degrees; served on two U.S. Presidential Commissions; received the National Book Award, the Medal of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and the Order of Lincoln Medallion; presided over the American Academy of Religion; been elected to the top history, philosophy and political science academies as well. Bill Moyers calls him "a phenomenon."

Still, this was a tricky engagement.

"To do one more footnote in a room full of Lincoln scholars would be gratuitous," Marty says. "Coals to Newcastle."

Instead, he cast a wider net, and discovered that after Jesus, the three most studied human beings in the Western world -- the three men who commanded the largest number of bibliographic entries -- were Lincoln, Martin Luther, and Napoleon.

An odder set of triplets, you couldn't hope to find: Luther, holy and stubborn, battling a corrupt all-powerful church; Napoleon, swaggering through Europe, bent on ridding it of churchy superstition; Lincoln, who refused to join a church, yet forged the deepest theology of any president.

"Reshapers of history," Marty calls them. "After they came along, you couldn't go back to where you were before."

He knew exactly what he wanted to compare, too.

"Almost nothing in the history of the human race has been more creative, and more troubling, than the issue of how human beings relate to two powers: the unseen transcendental -- whatever they are going to call God -- and the tribe, the city-state, the nation," he says. "Next to sex, God and country are the greatest themes. They move us to our greatest heights and they produce the greatest conflicts. The tension shows up especially in wartime, when you are going to send men and now women into battle to give up their lives. Every leader has to figure out what symbols to invoke.

"If you follow Lincoln," he says, "you dare not claim God on your side. He says both sides pray to the same God and both claim that God on their side.

"Lincoln seems to have been, in his youth, a skeptic, what was then called an infidel," Marty says. "He was brought up in a very strict form of Calvinism, under ministers for whom God had everything rigged, and he rebelled." Later, after suffering his son's death, his wife's troubles, the bruising of politics, he grew "much warmer and softer" toward religion's basic themes. He became so attached to the concept of the Union, he treated it almost as mystically religious. But he never made it God, and he never assumed a nation could claim God.

Napoleon, on the other hand, "made the French nation into his god. He gave it all the attributes you would give to God.

"He used God," Marty says. "He said, if I were ruling in Egypt, I would build mosques. He inveigled Pope Pius VII to cross the Alps to crown him and then, at the last minute, seized the crown from the Pope and put it on his own head."

Luther, for his part, refused to describe the Crusades as holy wars. "You do not claim God on your side," Marty repeats. "Wars are dirty; you sometimes have to fight them. Luther thought God had given the sword to the state. But he said, 'If a war is unjust, you cannot fight it.' " The real enemies, in Luther's mind, were greed, arrogance, arbitrary morality, tyranny of those in high places.

Now, Marty is more diplomat than rabble-rouser. Educated at Concordia, a Missouri Synod seminary, he broke with their teachings years ago, yet received a standing ovation when he spoke at his 50th reunion. A lifelong Lutheran, he was president of the American Catholic Historical Association. He argues for peace and is an admiral in the U.S. Navy.

But when he leaves Napoleon and compares Lincoln and Luther with the current administration, he leaves no doubt who comes up short.

"Lincoln knew that anything people plan will go partially wrong. Our leadership is convinced that if you have enough power, wealth, prestige and status in the world, you can do anything you want. And then things go wrong. They go enough wrong that you have to ask, 'Did we not realize that there was vice alongside our virtue, insecurity alongside our power?'

"In a nation without a monarchy, the president acquires kind of a priestly role which is easily overdone. But they back off. Jimmy Carter's inaugural was the least religious. He quoted Micah -- 'Do justly, love mercy and walk humbly with your God' -- and that was it. Reagan catered to the religious right but he never claimed to be born again. He was kind of a Hollywood evangelical. When the Challenger shuttle exploded, he said the crew was all in heaven.

"Bush said the same thing about the Columbia shuttle, but in his born-again religion, that's a contradiction."

Such contradictions between doctrine and public expression are common in America, Marty says. "There's a deep fissure running right through our history. If you ask Lutheran young people, 'Is Jesus the only way to salvation?' 80-90 percent say yes. If you ask, 'Do you believe everyone will be saved if they lead a good life?' 80-90 percent say yes again. At the altar, evangelists are particularists. But most Americans have a broad view, they are willing to embrace other religions as legitimate. You don't hear much said against the Hindu down the block -- who's probably an astrophysicist -- or your Pakistani neurosurgeon, who's taking care of your brain.

"I think we would probably go mad if we didn't allow those contradictions," Marty says.

Jeannette Batz Cooperman's most recent article

for Illinois Times was "In Lincoln's Shadow,'

published Nov. 20, 2003.

Dr. Martin E. Marty is the featured speaker at the Abraham Lincoln Association's banquet at 6 p.m. Thursday, Feb. 12, at the Renaissance Hotel in Springfield. For tickets, write Cathy LaConte at Illinois National Bank, 322 E. Capitol Ave., Springfield, IL 62701 or call her at

217-747-5502. The banquet is preceded by a free symposium beginning at 1 p.m. at the Old State Capitol. Additional information is

included in Humanities Connection,

a special section in this issue.

Also from Jeannette Batz Cooperman


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