Rabbi Meir Soloveichik has suggested in several of his writings that when Abraham Lincoln referred to The American People as “the almost chosen People” in his second inaugural address in 1865, he gave us both an insight into the values that guided his political philosophy, but he also was giving us a warning. A warning that was well understood by the people of his time because they were well-grounded in their knowledge of the arguments made by the great philosophers of Rome and Athens, but mostly because of their deep understanding of Biblical Principles found in the Bible and the Torah.
Almost every family in the mid-19th century had a Bible in their home or a Torah. It is estimated that only 10% of slaves were allowed to read at an elementary level, but most learned to read by reading the Bible often times though not always they would read to their fellow slaves. And students would read the Bible at school. Many of our Universities were founded by religious orders and congregations and the bases of their foundings was to propagate the faith and understanding of religious doctrine.
People living in the time of Lincoln would understand that in many of his speeches he referenced specific passages in the Bible. Few of us today are able to make that connection. For example “four score and seven years ago” would be familiar to people with an understanding of the Psalms “the days of our lives are three score years and ten and if by strength they be four score years” and in Washington’s Farewell Letter he specifically stated: “And whatever may be conceded to the influence of refined education, reason and experience forbid us to expect morality to prevail in the absence of religion”. No civilization has ever survived without a moral basis. From Athens and Rome to Jerusalem and then to Philadelphia and hopefully, through to today there is a direct link between faith, liberty, and morality.
Both Lincoln and Washington understood that in order for our country to survive we needed to be a people that shared a common morality and a belief in “God, The God of Creation, Devine Providence” their words. It is a consequence that the growing secularism of our time has created a state of moral relativism and disparate values. A successful organization a family, a church, a business, a country requires the free exercise of shared values in a manner not inconsistent with the equal rights of others to leverage their own individual sovereignty respecting the same sovereignty of others.
Lincoln understood that an “almost chosen people” were given great responsibilities and that they were given great gifts. But as Rabbi Meir Soloveichik warns us, “America is an exceptional nation only if we live up to the covenant of our founding, the ideals for which Washington fought and Lincoln died”, and our courageous Founding Fathers pledged their “lives and sacred honor”. And let’s not forget the many who have served in the military to protect that covenant and preserve our liberties, or the millions of mothers and fathers and teachers who have given their own lives to teach their own children these values. All understanding that in order to be “An Exceptional People and Nation” we have to through the generations live up to our end of the bargain.
The covenant of our founding is based on the greatest gift ever given to man—liberty (free will with sideboards”) but it is a two-way transaction.
Washington and Lincoln knew that it was impossible to have liberty without morality and shared values. Moral relativism ultimately values coercion, because without a shared morality only those with political or even physical power prevail. Totalitarian governments and Command Economies demand individual subservience to the State. The common good defined by government replaces liberty and individual responsibility and accountability. In the history of the world, those political and economic systems have always failed.
President’s Day should be a time for reflection on the wisdom and the liberty that have been handed down to us through all the ages. This trust, this sacred covenant needs constant respect and attention. And in the words of Lincoln and Washington we should humbly thank—(God, The God of Creation, and Devine Providence”) for the many Graces that have been passed on to us.
“God of Hosts be with us yet”—lest we forget”