Lincoln: the authority of integrity vs. position-taking

I tend to be nonplussed as a matter of principle about patriotic piety over dead white guys who define our country’s history like George Washington and Abraham Lincoln. But I watched the movie Lincoln this past week and my heart was won over by Daniel Day-Lewis, who portrayed the president. Obviously there is no way to distinguish between the legend and the historical figure, but the legend is compelling. I’ve been trying to put my finger on what made Lincoln seem like an extraordinary person. Just to take a stab at it, I’m going to call it the authority of integrity.

The main conflict in the film is centered around Lincoln’s attempt to amend the Constitution to abolish slavery in the final days of the Civil War. When he issued the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863, he did so as an executive order under his wartime powers. Essentially he was declaring that Union soldiers could confiscate (and free) slaves from any Southern plantations that they overtook. But his proclamation technically defines slaves as rebel property, which affirms how they were viewed by the slave-owners, even though Lincoln was opposed to slavery on principle.

There was a lot of pressure on Lincoln to come to terms of peace with the Confederacy and let them keep their slaves. The amendment to abolish slavery was seen as an obstacle to peace. Lincoln was told time and time again that he could have peace or an end to slavery but not both. It was an incredible chess match trying to get all of the different constituencies in Congress to come together on the amendment.

It shouldn’t have been surprising but was nonetheless disappointing that very few of the congressmen were actually approaching the issue of slavery out of a moral conviction that black people were equally human. In fact, one of the Democratic politicians tried to sabotage the amendment by baiting an abolitionist congressman into affirming the equal humanity of black people from the House podium (since this would have angered almost everyone in the room). The congressman strategically qualified his views, saying that he was advocating for blacks’ equality under the law, but not their equal humanity.

Most of the politicians in the film other than Lincoln exhibited a characteristic I see a lot in our world today. I would call it “position-taking” — defining yourself and proving yourself to other people according to your pro- and anti- stances on a set of issues. This happens particularly among those who like to fashion themselves as moderates, e.g. supporting safety nets for poor people, but opposing gay marriage, to name one of the more common position combinations among moderate evangelicals.

It also happens a lot in the blogosphere. Bloggers position themselves according to the niche market of readers they want to own. I’m not very good at positioning myself to build a readership because I’m a confused recovering evangelical who gets really worked up over things that few of my fellow Methodists seem to care about. I think I’m too impulsive to be a very strategic position-taker on my blog. It’s true that I do sometimes chase headlines. It’s hard not to because the words flow quickly when I see things in the news that set me off. But I’ve got ulterior motives too.

As a pastor in a very politically diverse congregation, I often wonder whether I’m a gutless position-taker. I’d like to think that what I’m doing when I say very different things to college age hipsters and sixty year old Tea Party supporters is affirming the truths within each perspective without being dishonest. But I often chide myself after each conversation I have for being a little too eager to prove that I belong to the tribe of whoever I’m talking to. To some degree, evangelism requires this. Paul did say, “I have become all things to all people so that by all means I might win some” (1 Cor 9:22).

But Paul also says something that embodies the authority of integrity that characterized Lincoln: “I care very little if I am judged by you or by any human court; indeed, I do not even judge myself. My conscience is clear, but that does not make me innocent. It is the Lord who judges me” (1 Cor 4:3-4). That is the conviction of people who have enough integrity to say and do things that make other people mad. They’re not worried about what other people think because God has convicted them of a truth and commanded their obedience to it. Of course there is also a fake integrity in which people make a big spectacle of being contrarian in order to show everyone that they’re standing up to the dominant paradigm (whether it’s political correctness or fundamentalism).

I think the way you can tell someone with real integrity from a contrarian with an agenda is people with real integrity are not exhibitionists (i.e. they probably aren’t bloggers!). They are not invested in calling attention to themselves, but in being faithful to the truth they are defending even if it requires a certain savvy in what they say and do which may make them appear to be gutless position-takers like everyone else. People with integrity are willing to be pragmatic, patient, and tenacious in their pursuit of whatever God has told them to do.

That’s what I saw in Lincoln: the interesting combination of integrity and pragmatism. Often the two seem to be in contradiction, because the moderate position-takers use “pragmatism” as a word that excuses not standing up for anything. But a genuine obedience to the truth is pragmatic because it cannot be subservient to ideological purism or logical consistency. I wish there were some pragmatists with integrity among the religious and political leaders of our country. And I hope that I can be one too someday.

2 thoughts on “Lincoln: the authority of integrity vs. position-taking

  1. Man that is a difficult line to straddle and observe. I used to run roughshod over people in my convictions, I moderated, then swung back, and am still trying to piece together how to “take a position” or hold convictions on various issues without compromising my ability to share the Gospel. It’s a toughie, but thanks for the words.

    • You’re right. It is tough. And there is probably something to be said for the fact that a president facing down slavery is in a different circumstance than a pastor dealing with issues that are much less cut and dry. The prophetic and the pastoral always have to be balanced.

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