The Cult of Father Abraham

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This article isn’t about Abraham Lincoln — it’s about people who worship Abraham Lincoln like a God or a Prophet. Given the issues involved in the Civil War and Lincoln’s presidency it stands to reason that both critics and supporters of the man should have strong feelings about him. Usually these feelings are not religious, however, and Lincoln is not identified either with God or God’s opposite, except in rhetorical exaggerations. But for one group of Lincoln-admirers there is a genuinely religious zeal directed toward the 16th president. This group is the Claremont Institute and its scholars.

The writings of Claremont’s Dr. Ken Masugi are explicit on this point.

Consider this example which contrasts the new civic religion of multiculturalism with…well, with another kind of civic religion: "No, this is not the religious right versus secularists. It is nothing other than a test of what faith this nation embraces. America’s new would-be civil religion of multiculturalism or the proposition that all men are created equal, from the Declaration of Independence." It is not an exaggeration to say that for the Claremontians, the Declaration of Independence is Scripture — the Gospel according to St. Thomas Jefferson — and is the foundation for a civic religion. And maybe not just "civic," either.

Here’s a little more from the same essay: "The old religion of the Declaration and Constitution is of course not restricted to Christians, and includes Jews, Muslims, and Buddhists, as well. It requires devotion to the laws of nature and of nature’s God, acknowledged by the Declaration of Independence as the basis of all human rights and the natural limitations on governmental power. Before the Declaration slavery was legal in all the colonies; by the time the Constitution was adopted slavery was illegal in six of the new States. It is not in any way the Declaration’s fault that men did not adhere to its tenets more strictly, but it deserves the major credit for the liberation that did occur. Thus, men and women of different faiths (and races) could join together in a society grounded on a common belief in the natural rights of all. So grounded, such a nation could protect the rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness for all. The commitment of this old political religion, as Abraham Lincoln called it, was so intense that a Civil War over its meaning was fought."

Lincoln is construed as the great Prophet-Messiah of this religion. Dr. Masugi writes in response to "the Rockwell Institute’s (sic) David Dieteman" that "Lincoln represented the fulfillment of Tocqueville’s attempt to reconcile democracy with liberty, excellence, and faith. In fact, I’ll go even further: Abraham Lincoln represented a fulfillment of the Holy Mother Church, as Pope John Paul II articulated well in many addresses to Americans." Masugi claims the Pope as an adherent of the Cult of Lincoln because the pontiff asked an American ambassador to consider the application of the phrase "a new birth of freedom" in the context of abortion. A critical thinker might suggest to Masugi that if we had self-determination and states-rights in this country the Supreme Court would not have been able to impose its vision of universal abortion on all of us. But since secession is not an option, nor even the threat of secession, the Court can act unilaterally and we can do nothing about it. (Except elect another Bush, for whatever good that may do.)

It is this inability to see the logical and actual ramifications of Lincoln’s centralism that prompts me to attribute blind faith to the Claremontians. The Claremontians are apparently serious in their opposition to abortion and their championing of Judeo-Christian morality (nevermind that Jewish and Christian morality are not identical or without conflicts with one another). Why can’t they see that the centralization wrought by Lincoln has done nothing but undermine everything the Claremontians themselves claim to hold dear, from the right to life to the Boy Scouts? It’s thanks to Lincoln that instead of living in communities that govern themselves we live in a continental empire ruled by Washington, Wall Street and Hollywood.

Masugi refers to himself in his anti-Dieteman article as a Catholic. I doubt that he or most other Claremontians would define themselves as worshippers of Lincoln. Fair enough. Only God can judge their consciences. As far as their actions and words are concerned however the impression we mortals are left with is that the Claremont folks see Lincoln as much more than human, and that if the Declaration of Independence is not their Scripture in name, it is the functional equivalent of Scripture, acting as an authoritative source for values.

Sometimes, to be sure, the Claremontian adoration of Lincoln is rhetorical, as when Masugi writes in reference to a dispute over Lincoln on Rush Limbaugh’s radio show, "Among the highest privileges we children of Father Abraham enjoy is the freedom to matriculate at the Limbaugh Institute, which so nobly advances the work of Abraham Lincoln." Since Masugi uses the rhetorical metaphor of a "Limbaugh Institute" surely his reference of "Father Abraham" is rhetorical as well. Then again, this is the man who invented "the Rockwell Institute," so maybe he does think there’s such a thing as the Limbaugh Institute.

In a sense the Claremontians and their Cult of Lincoln are only one denomination of a much larger church. Behind Lincoln and the Declaration of Independence is a higher authority. It’s not any kind of god, because while the Claremontians talk a lot about "God" it is almost always in the vague deist context established by Thomas Jefferson and other Enlightenment rationalists, a god so vague as to be anything you want him to be. No, what the Claremontians are much more clear about is another kind of metaphysical entity which cannot be seen but which validates and justifies actions in this world: abstract rights. The rights with which the Claremontians are concerned they call "natural rights," but Leftists have a similar notion which they call "human rights." Both sides claim that the rights they believe in are universal and absolute — the Claremontians often complain about "moral relativism." In practice what this usually means is claiming the moral authorization to kill other people in the name of these "rights." The Claremontians justify Lincoln’s slaughter of Southern men, women and children in precisely these terms. Along the same lines left-wing (and neoconservative) human rights champions justify aerial bombing of Serb civilians and withholding medicine and food from Iraqi children.

The reality of disagreement over what rights there are and whether they exist at all does not mean that there cannot be one true answer, just as disagreement over the nature and existence of God does not mean there is no true faith. But what it does mean is that we fallible humans should proceed with maximum caution when it comes to enforcing axiomatic moral claims at gunpoint, and that unless our faith happens to demand the forced conversion of infidels we’d probably all be better off separating into different communities based on shared beliefs and values rather than imposing one set on everybody. Unfortunately such a separation — secession — is precisely the thing that Lincoln refused to allow.

Clarence Thomas, perhaps the best conservative/libertarian Justice on the Supreme Court today, is a Claremontian. On many specific issues Claremontians and other members of the right are in agreement, and the Claremontians often provide some of the most intelligent and effective criticism of our mutual foes on the left. Unfortunately though whatever our common ground there will always be this fundamental, religiously-grounded incompatibility between those of us who want autonomy of one kind or another and those who want to impose their version of natural rights on the rest of us. The problem with Claremontianism is not so much that it is a kind of religion, but that it practices forced conversion.

Daniel McCarthy [send him mail] is a graduate student in classics at Washington University in St. Louis.

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