Lincoln’s Teaching – and Our Politics

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[The following column is adapted from recent remarks by Professor Arkes in a panel at Princeton on Lincoln’s Statesmanship and its relevance to our current politics.]

Lincoln famously complained that there was nowhere that people could talk about slavery – they couldn’t talk about it in the churches because “it didn’t belong there.” It was too political, too divisive. And they couldn’t talk about it in politics because it was too explosive. It was a moral and religious question, too unsettling for our politics. It was the gravest issue before us. It was the issue that truly went to the core of the kind of regime we meant to establish and the kind of people we had sought to be. And yet we couldn’t talk about it readily in public.

We bring back here one of the most enduring lessons Lincoln taught, with a problem that persistently haunts our politics: One of the prime tasks of the political man is to teach, through his own, artful example how ordinary people can talk about the issues that truly run to the root. But that presupposes the prior, truly first task. The political man or woman will need to get clear in the first place on the questions that really were central; the questions, as Lincoln said, from which everything else radiated.

That is why, as he said, that proposition, “all men are created equal” really was the “father of all moral principle” in us. As Lincoln showed, the case in principle for slavery could not be confined to blacks. A government that could accept the slavery of black people could easily begin disfranchising certain classes of whites as well. And with a simple shift of labels, a whole other class of “human persons” can be removed altogether from the circle of “rights-bearing beings.”

Twenty years ago, during the presidential campaign of 1996, I was speaking to a black-tie gathering of the English-speaking Union in Pinehurst, N.C. I remarked that I hadn’t offered to the audience that night any substantive argument on abortion, and I gathered that this was not something this audience cared to discuss. But I asked people if they would simply engage their imaginations in this way: Let’s suppose that we looked out and noticed a scene in which 1.2 million members of a minority group could be lynched or killed every year in this country without the restraint or reproach of the law. Where do you think that someone would place that matter within the overall rank of the issues before us in our politics? Would it be just below the question of interest rates or global warming, or the provision of health care?

Photo of Mr. Lincoln by Alexander Gardner
Photo of Mr. Lincoln by Alexander Gardner

Now if someone looked out on our current scene and had powerful reason to think that those were real human lives being destroyed each year in abortions – that they were inescapably innocent lives; that the laws on homicide have never been proportioned to height and weight and age; that the killing of a 62-year-old man is not more of a homicide than the killing of a 2-year old. Well, if he looked out and saw these things, would it surprise you if he told you that this issue could not be, for him, a secondary or peripheral issue? It had to be an issue of the first-order, perhaps overriding everything else.

When liberal friends tell us that they’re concerned about unemployment or national health, we ask, “Are you concerned about the unemployment or health of everyone, including people you don’t know? If you don’t know them, how do know that they deserve your concern?” The answer we hear is: “Because they’re human beings.” Well, then why not those other humans, those 1.2 million small humans poisoned or dismembered each year in the womb?

Mr. Ralph Reed wrote recently that only about 4 percent of the public has listed abortion as an issue they care about. But could it be that the public doesn’t care about the issue because political men, ever sensitive to their voters, prefer not to talk about it?   And yet do we really think the public would find no interest in learning that 177 Democrats just voted against punishing the killing of a child who survived abortion – that the Democrats regard “the right to abortion” as the right to kill even the child born alive?

Perhaps the politicians are not pressed to speak because the public has heard nothing about these things. And in a recent talk in Princeton, I found that almost no one in the audience had heard about that vote. Perhaps they have not heard because the media have chosen not to break out this news.

But how does one account then for two notable Catholics, Bret Baier and Megyn Kelly, who command a vast audience on Fox News? They are two appealing people, they pose questions to politicians, and yet never think it is worth asking Hillary Clinton or Bernie Sanders to defend this position of their party on killing children born alive.

But if a politician uses the N-word, if Donald Trump says a derisive word about women – none of these things has been beneath the notice, and the lingering attention, of the media. For most people in the media, the matter doesn’t draw interest because those lives taken in abortion simply don’t count for them as human lives.

But for Catholics in the media the drift to this moral indifference is a far graver shift. For it must threaten, for them, the genuine erosion of a Catholic mind and sensibility.

Hadley Arkes is the Ney Professor of Jurisprudence Emeritus at Amherst College and the Founder/Director of the James Wilson Institute on Natural Rights & the American Founding. He is the author of Constitutional Illusions & Anchoring Truths: The Touchstone of the Natural Law. Volume II of his audio lectures from The Modern Scholar, First Principles and Natural Law is available for download. His new book is Mere Natural Law: Originalism and the Anchoring Truths of the Constitution.