Lincoln v. Obama on Catholic Consciences

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In the weeks before the Lincoln Bicentennial, Americans were inundated with books, articles, commentary, and television programs praising our sixteenth president. Barack Obama – a Lincoln enthusiast – traveled to his inauguration via the same rail route Lincoln took in 1861, was sworn in with his hand on Lincoln’s Bible, and led the February 12 festivities. At commemoration speeches in Springfield, Illinois, and the District of Columbia, Obama made it clear that Lincoln is his model president.

Noticeably absent, however, was a discussion of Lincoln’s relationship with American Catholics, their church, and issues that affected their lives. Obama might want to take a break from signing death warrants for embryos and other alleged acts of compassion, and familiarize himself with this piece of American history.

In 1844, the anti-Catholic nativist movement was in full swing. To bolster the presidential candidacy of Henry Clay, Daniel Webster called for the Whigs to adopt “an efficient reformation of the naturalization laws” and urged his party to align with the anti-Catholic nativists. Not all the Whigs went along. On June 12, 1844, at a Whig gathering in Springfield, Lincoln broke with his party and proposed:

Resolved, That the guarantee of the rights of conscience, as found in our Constitution, is most sacred and inviolable, and one that belongs no less to the Catholic, than to the Protestant; and that all attempts to abridge or interfere with these rights, either of Catholic or Protestant, directly or indirectly, have our decided disapprobation, and shall ever have our most effective opposition.

A decade later, the fledging Republican Party was tempted to court the anti-Catholic Know-Nothings to patch together a winning coalition. Lincoln fearlessly repudiated this electoral strategy. In an 1855 letter to Joshua Speed, he explained:

I am not a Know-Nothing. This is certain. How could I be? . . . As a nation, we began by declaring that “all men are created equal.” We now practically read it “all men are created equal, except negroes.” When the Know-Nothings get control, it will read “all men are created equal, except negroes, and foreigners, and Catholics.” When it comes to this I should prefer emigrating to some country where they make no pretence of loving liberty – to Russia, for instance, where despotism can be taken pure, and without the base alloy of hypocrisy.

When the Republicans met in 1860 for their nominating convention, Lincoln knew that party zealots had made countless pronouncements during the past four years promoting policies that alienated the Catholic population. In 1859, for instance, the Republican-controlled Massachusetts legislature called for a state constitutional amendment to extend the waiting time before newly naturalized citizens could vote, which infuriated Catholics.

Lincoln forcefully opposed the Massachusetts voting law: “I am against its adoption, not only in Illinois, but in every other place in which I have the right to oppose it…. It is well known that I deplore the oppressed condition of the blacks, and it would, therefore, be very inconsistent for me to look with approval upon any measure that infringes upon the inalienable rights of white men, whether or not they are born in another land or speak a different language from our own.”

When the Civil War commenced, Catholics could be objective about grandstanding on both sides: almost none were slave owners or proprietors of northern manufacturing plants who viewed slavery as an unfair labor advantage. Despite the political contradictions and hypocrisy, most Irish Catholics in the North agreed to fight to preserve the union at all costs. German Catholics in Pennsylvania and the Midwest fought because they staunchly opposed slavery and its extension into new territories.

In 1863, riots broke out in New York because a disproportionately high number of men were drafted in heavily Catholic congressional districts compared to the Protestant-dominated upstate districts. Lincoln was grateful that Archbishop John Hughes quelled the outbreaks. Speaking to thousands of his flock outside his residence, the ailing shepherd asserted, “A man has a right to defend his shanty, if it be no more, or his house, or his church at the risk of his life; but the cause must be always just, it must be defensive, not aggressive.” After cheers and a final benediction, he sent the crowd home and they answered in unison, “We will.”

Recognizing the importance of Catholic manpower in the Union Army – about 200,000 – and the influence of clergy on men in uniform, Lincoln began regularly consulting key bishops. He established an excellent relationship with Hughes, and before the archbishop died in 1864, President Lincoln asked him to handle delicate missions, once sending him to France as an unofficial State Department emissary. In return, Lincoln urged the Vatican to give Hughes the cardinal’s red hat.

By the end of the Civil War, the Catholic Church’s prestige was greatly enhanced. The Church remained unified; her soldiers fought bravely; and Americans witnessed uncountable acts of Catholic charity. The Daughters of Charity, the Sisters of Mercy, and other religious orders, impressed the public with help to the wounded and distraught. Catholic and non-Catholic comrades, living, marching, and fighting together, dispelled many old prejudices.

Throughout his life, Lincoln held true to his conviction that government could never force persons to violate their consciences. He understood that these “laws of nature and nature’s God” are the great guardians of the soul of democracy, which is the intrinsic value of the person. Without respect for personhood, the certitude that every man and woman matters, liberty becomes license, and the responsibility to do what is right declines into the right to do what is irresponsible.

As President Obama contemplates rescinding conscience protection for Catholic health-care providers, thus forcing pro-life medical professionals to violate their moral convictions against taking innocent human life, he might reflect on his great predecessor’s words and deeds. Like Lincoln, he might reach out to the Church hierarchy to hear how proposed policy changes infringe on the rights of Catholics to act according to their consciences. Because Honest Abe had it right: conscience “is most sacred and inviolable.”

George Marlin is the author of The American Catholic Voter: Two Hundred Years of Political Impact.

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  • Megs

    Archbishop Hughes quelled the draft riots? Hmm, I guess the thousands of troops brought in had nothing to do with it. While I love Abe, he did play footsies with the Know Nothings which is why Bates was in his Cabinet and why he kept the likes of Gen. Banks around despite his complete ineptness as a general while Catholic generals like Buell and Rosecrans were quickly banished after one mistake.

  • William Dennis

    Wait and See.
    There is such an entity as “delusions of grandeur.” It is too premature to determine if this president has the courage and tenacity of Abraham Lincolin. I agree as far as equality and dignity of human personhood this president is not off to a good start. He does, however, have a morally divided country. His emulation of a great man is commendable but wait and see!

  • Brian

    Lincoln and San Luis Rey
    When California was finally admitted to the Union in September of 1850, it was President Abraham Lincoln who signed the document returning the Mission San Luis Rey to the Catholic Church. This mission had previously been confiscated from the Church and secularized by the Mexican government. (reference:

  • JoAnn Windholz

    American Catholic
    I have to admit that this article had informtion which I had never heard of and I was a history major. We worry about our children’s textbooks today- well, somethings never change. We must speak up at every turn in the road and the road is starting out to be very dangerous as we make the twists and turns. Being Catholic has never been easy – Christ never said it would be easy to follow him. But folks we now know the color of the President’s stripes -socialist and dangerous. Keep the Faith.

  • ignatius

    It would seem that now more than ever we need to be electing politicians that won’t pander to the interests of the mob. That would certainly be more in accordance with the Founding Fathers of America, who were wary about a democratic form of government, proposing instead that America be a republic. In a republic the people vote in the people that have the voice to make laws. By doing this the voice of the people would be heard, while at the same time the insanity of mob rule could be avoided.

  • John Thompson

    I would be a little hesitent to claim that the Church’s unification during the Civil War is a mark of its prestige. It was able to remain unified in part because it largely ignored the question of slavery. While there are notable exceptions on both the abolitionist and pro-slavery ends, the dominant position was one of silence. he literature of hierarchy is replete with discussions of slavery as a “political” rather than “moral” issue and therefore outside the realm of the Catholic Church.

  • tessie

    Thank you so much for this article…..a little too late, but very much appreciated. This article is so historical & indepth. I can now email it to as many people as I can send it to. Again, thank you!!

  • Jerry O’Connor

    Pro life advocate
    Knowing what Barack Obama stands for when it comes to respect for life, I quickly realized that when he became the first black president of the U. S., he also became our greatest and most powerful adversary–a foe of the pro-life movement. What troubles me the most about this man (he is just a man like the rest of us) is that he comes from a Christian background and yet professes and witnesses little of the truth about God’s greatest gift to humanity and that is….life itself.

  • Vince R

    Although he strives for eloquence, studying Lincoln might teach President Obama that his words will achieve eloquence only as they reflect Truth.

  • Steven Barrett

    Read Holocaust expert Raul Hilberg’s comments about Germany’s Reichsbahn which operated the death trains to Auschwitz, etc. It could’ve stopped the business of killing Jews en masse had it only refused.

    Obama’s stripping of conscientious objector protections goes even further than what Himmler pulled over on the nationalized railroad. Obama’s giving Catholics and other medical personnel opposed to abortion no room to back out all, even in the private sector.

    Obama wants to outdo Nazis?

  • Rosa

    A concerned citirsen
    Say hello to your new God! Baraka Obama not only calls himself a MESSIAH, but he hopes to rule the world. I believe that he has over stepped himself a little too much. He promises freedom, but brings in oppression. He thinks of himself a Messiah yet he is a muderer of little children as well as the too sick who are unable to look after themselves and now he seeks to take control not only of our freedom but also the Holy Catholic Church. Do I have to explain anymore?

  • Tyler Young

    Bad Morals, Bad Science,
    By Tyler Young
    God is the source of all life (Gen. 1:2627), and it is an egregious and supremely arrogant sin to “play God” by creating and destroying human life in the name of “science” (Prov. 6:1618). You, dear reader, were once a human embryo, which is simply a particular stage of human development, as is infancy, childhood, and adulthood. It is tragic and terrible enough that we permit destroying human life for research when it is immoral and unnecessary. President Obama has
    only made it worse by taking our money to pay for it. In doing so, he demonstrates his utter disregard for our moral objections. Those who love God and life cannot let this pass without a protest, but must reprove this “unfruitful work of darkness” (Eph. 5:11).

  • Tyler Young

    Bad Morals, Bad Science
    Continued from below…President Obama has
    only made it worse by taking our money to pay for it. In doing so, he demonstrates his utter disregard for our moral objections. Those who love God and life cannot let this pass without a protest, but must reprove this “unfruitful work of darkness” (Eph. 5:11).

  • Paul Bergeron

    Obama, heir of Lincoln
    Obama is ignoring freedom of conscience just as Lincoln ignored his own words spoken January 12, 1848: “Any people anywhere, being inclined and having the power, have the right to rise up and shake off the existing government, and form a new one that suits them better. This is a most valuable, a most sacred right—a right which we hope and believe is to liberate the world. Nor is this right confined to cases in which the whole people of an existing government may choose to exercise it.”

  • john

    Barack Obama should not be eager going about making friends with the enemies of the USA. Clearly he has shown that he will want to merge America with the Middle East which would wouuld be a step closer to the end of America’s world dominance.