Lincoln v. Obama on Catholic Consciences

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 J. Marlin, Chairman of the Board of Aid to the Church in Need USA, is the author of The American Catholic Voter and Sons of St. Patrick, written with Brad Miner. His most recent book is Mario Cuomo: The Myth and the Man.