Strengthening Constitutional Self-Government

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From Darkness to Dawn: Renewing the Vision and Covenant of the American People

Res Publica

April 1994

by Deanna M. Keeney

The first cannon fired between the army soldiers of the North and South was the battle cry announcing that darkness had spread over the shining vision of America. The vision of freedom and equality that had created a covenant between God and his people had been broken. Our nation, once called the "Kingdom of Heaven on Earth," layed in shambles as the people took dividing sides between north and south; one side wanting to perpetuate our union and its principles of freedom and the other to separate and live under a law of its own. It was this division that broke our covenant with God, for it dismembered the American body to fully carry out its duty of forming "a more perfect union." There was a greater union broken and that was the union of Christian (Evangelical) religion and civil religion. As civil religion was threatened, so was the practice of our religious freedoms. Christianity relied on the powers enumerated in our Constitution, and without government, our rightful ability to practice our freedoms would be threatened. The nation was in despair, but it was the will of God for the nation to suffer despair in order to experience hope which was found in the new birth of freedom. This hope was led by a man who brought light to America and carried us through the war. This man was Abraham Lincoln. I will show how Lincoln would re-link the covenant of the past, present, and future, that would restore our freedom of Christian religion and civil religion as given to us by the grace of our God.

The restoration of the covenant was linked to the past through the causes severing our union and ultimately defining the necessity of war. The evident cause of the war was the vice and virtue of slavery. Slavery would divide the North and South. The North claiming slavery as a vice and the South claiming it as a virtue. This was the cause of the battle between practicality and principle. Lincoln predicted that our union would have to face a crisis as a result of the effects of slavery, and this was seen in his House Divided Speech given in 1858.

A house divided against itself cannot stand. I believe this government cannot endure, permanently half slave and half free…It will become all one thing or all the other. (Current, pg. 95)

Here, Lincoln declared that the house must stand as a pillar of freedom or a dungeon of slavery. Our nation, he commanded, could not serve two masters: either the south would have to give up the practical, economical purposes of holding slaves, or the north would have to compromise its principles of freedom and equality for all people. Lincoln foresaw the impact of the conflict at hand in that it was an impending evil "inherited by the whole nation" (Corrigan, pg. 210). It was resolute that the North and South would have to battle each other as an act of despair in order to perpetuate the hope of bringing unity back to the North and South.

Not only did Lincoln predict the threat of slavery as causing conflict to our union, but it was also addressed by Alexis de Tocqueville in Democracy in America:

Whatever efforts the Americans of the north and south make to maintain slavery, they will not forever succeed. Slavery is limited to one point on the globe and attacked by Christianity as unjust and by political economy as fatal: slavery, amid the democratic liberty and enlightenment of our age, is not an institution that can last…Great misfortunes are to be anticipated. (Kirk, pg. 449)

Likewise, Tocqueville’s insight supported that the conflict of slavery would cause "great misfortunes for our country." However, his insight showed an enlightened perspective of Christianity and its covenant between Evangelical and civil religion. He saw that slavery would sever the two forms of religion in light of God’s providential rule and the country’s civil order. As a result, Tocqueville agreed the country would have to face the despair of fighting the institution of slavery before reclaiming the hope of democratic liberty. Tocqueville, as well as Lincoln, saw the hope could be regained, but it would have to first experience God’s judgment before renewing the covenant binding Him with the American people.

The challenge of slavery would be an important cause for war, but it would be accompanied by an even greater cause: whether the American people would remain dedicated to the vision of freedom and quality that was created upon the nation’s founding. According to Corrigan, the American people "thought of the nation as their own creation and had never given themselves fully to it" (pg. 210). The union of all states (beyond the original colonies) remained incomplete—there was not an understanding of their duty as part of a government whose purpose was to maintain law and order under the Constitution. Hence, the people were divided by a line of demarcation between loyalty and lawlessness.

Notwithstanding, the people’s action represented an unjust pride of taking credit for establishing the nation themselves rather than giving the credit due to the grace of the almighty Creator. This was the true cause that would bring forth God’s judgment to the forthcoming battles. Moreover, it was this action that would link us to restructuring our covenant from past to present, as shown by Lincoln and his hope to carry the nation through battle and bring back unity.

The covenant re-linking past to present would provide a flicker of hope, even in the darkest depths of the war. Lincoln fostered this hope of unifying Christian and civil religion by justifying the causes of war and empowering a new birth of freedom to be regained by the whole nation. This was expressed within his Gettysburg Address:

But, in a larger sense, we can not dedicate—we can not consecrate—we can not hallow—this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it, far above our poor power to add or detract… (Current, pg. 285)

Lincoln showed that the evil destruction of war was initiated for a Divine purpose. In order for America to regain its covenant of salvation by grace, as well as freedom and equality, the nation would have to atone itself for its sin by shedding the blood of its own people. The soldiers buried at Gettysburg cemetery would symbolize the nation’s cleansing and the sacrifice endured in order to be set free from its sin. God’s grace was at hand, and this was represented through the consecration of Gettysburg on behalf of the union as a whole.

While Lincoln justified the judgment brought forth in war to be an act of healing for the nation, he also empowered the American people to see that God’s grace called for the renewal of our national devotion to freedom and equality established within its vision—

It is for us the living to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us…that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom—and that government of the people, by the people, for the people shall not perish from the earth. (Current, pg. 285)

Lincoln’s words at the end of the address served as a true testament of hope that with grief and peril, there is a peace through God’s grace and mercy. The nation suffered the process of atoning for its evilness and sin, and the task now was to deliver themselves out of the depths of war and renew the vision of our country. Nevertheless, the people needed to be reminded of their duty to perpetuate the maxim of equality as well as freedom. Freedom could only be experienced through rebirth because in order for a nation to be truly free, the American people had to maintain that equality existed among all men by virtue of their God-given natural rights. In other words, the great experiment required that freedom and equality be reciprocal in nature, for without either, the nation could not survive. Therefore, government could not stand alone, it needed to become united by coming together and standing as one people. The rebirth of freedom was the knowledge that the covenant between God and his people was being regained. The evilness that had separated the nation’s fellowship and union with Him could again be reestablished, and the nation could claim mercy and grace to exist within the union of the "laws of nature" and of the civil law. These were the freedoms that were to empower our nation and given it an everlasting hope. In addition, it would re-link the vision of America’s covenant from the present conditions of war to America’s future of peace. The flicker of light had now grown to a shining ray.

Re-linking the covenant of America’s past and present to the future was to bring a new dawn for our nation. The nation had long endured the perils of war, and it was time to re-build itself. America was to be sanctified—prepared to face the holy process of being strengthened before God and its people. Lincoln illustrates this in his Second Inaugural Address of 1865:

With malice toward none; with charity for all; with firmness in the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in; to bind up the nation’s wounds; to carry for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and orphan—to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace, among ourselves, and with all nations. (Current, pg. 316)

According to Lincoln, America had its calling to press on toward the goal of sanctifying itself toward love and justice for all. The union had been regained and it was time to affirm our covenant with God that Christianity, by means of evangelical and civil religion, could rightly live within our country. Our nation was destined to be a union of hope and peace, as darkness had been overcome by healing. We were to work to reclaim ourselves as a "shining city upon the hill" that would manifest hope, through the principles of salvation found in freedom and equality that could be experienced by all.

Lincoln saw that hope was sheltered in the scars of slavery and disorder; causing the outbreak of the Civil War and the covenant between God and his people to be broken. It was these scars, however, that would have to be endured in order to justify the necessity for change that was to take place, and the empowerment that was to be planted within our nation. God’s judgment would require the sin to be washed away through the blood of the people in order to be deemed white as snow again. Their cleansing would be the regaining of unity and hope sanctifying the rebirth of freedom and its cause to grow. This would be the link binding America’s vision to the covenant from the past and present to the future that would send the message that America’s vision was renewed, and that it would again shine its light as a beacon for mankind.

Applying the teachings of the Civil War to today, we can come to one principle conclusion, and that is there is still hope and the possibility of recapturing the same union as envisioned by our nation’s Founders. Our nation does face a darkness over its vision and a brokenness between the union of Christian and civil religion. However, our nation will have to overcome its despair by realizing its need to repent for its sin it now faces and to allow the grace that God can only give to cleanse it from within again. Hopefully, our nation will be able to long endure the trials of judgment, as well as be able to recognize the true ideals of freedom and equality dedicated to promote "a more perfect union."

Deanna M. Keeney is a senior from Duluth, MN and is majoring in Political Science.

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