Monday, November 5, 2012

Everybody Hates Lincoln

by Ben Howard

On Saturday night comedian Louis C.K. hosted Saturday Night Live. One of the first sketches merged the concept of C.K.'s offbeat show "Louie" with the recent interest in Abraham Lincoln. In the re-imagined show C.K. plays Lincoln as a disrespected, hated individual who openly jokes about the fact that someone is probably going to kill him because half the country hates him. In the opening sequence, C.K. as Lincoln tries to have a conversation with a recently freed slave at a bar. He asked him how it feels to be emancipated only to have the freed slave, played by Kenan Thompson, explain that his life isn't much better because his new job is shoveling manure into a cart.

I bring up this sketch because it highlights an important point to remember the day before an election. The perspective we have today, the opinion we hold today, is not always the right one. Lincoln was the most hated man in America during his time as President. He was viewed as divisive and a threat to the union. It is only in the light of history that he is regarded as one the greatest Presidents because this was not the case during his lifetime.

In college I majored in history and I'm really glad that I did. It's not the most employable of degrees, but it teaches you how to think and process concepts. It also teaches you about perspective. It takes time to properly assess how policy decisions ran their course or how foreign policy decisions worked out. It takes time to realize that Lincoln was great or that Hoover and Truman weren't incompetent.

I'm not saying that Barack Obama is secretly a fantastic president, but I'm saying that we don't have enough perspective to really judge that yet. I'm not saying that Mitt Romney would be a good president either. I'm saying election day changes nothing in the light of history because popularity does not correlate to presidential success. Just ask George H.W. Bush who won his first election in a massive landslide.

One other note about perspective. This is not the most contentious political environment in United States history. Please remember that in 1804 Vice-President Aaron Burr shot and killed former Secretary of Treasury Alexander Hamilton. That's the equivalent of Joe Biden shooting and killing Hank Paulson. We are less contentious than this.

Also, remember that in 1856 Senator Charles Sumner of Massachusetts was nearly beaten to death on the Senate floor by Congressman Preston Brooks of South Carolina. Oh yeah, then we had a civil war.

If you think instead that political dirty tricks are at an all-time high, please recall that in 1968 Richard Nixon secretly sabotaged Lyndon Johnson's efforts at peace in Vietnam to ensure that Johnson's Vice-President Hubert Humphrey would not defeat him in the election. Nixon later admitted these actions himself.

If the worst we have is name-calling, a few hurt feelings, and a general air of disrespect then by historical standards we are doing pretty good.

Now, I wish that everyone could be like New Jersey Governor Chris Christie who, after receiving criticism for touring hurricane damaged parts of his state with President Obama, tweeted: "Today I'm touring NJ with President Obama. Yes, he's a Democrat, and I'm a Republican. We're also adults, and this is how adults behave."

We need to have this sense of perspective in our churches and our religion too. Perspective is one of the things that keeps us humble. It reminds us that even if we're 100% convinced that we're right in the moment, it's still possible to be wrong. 

Perspective about Christian history reminds us that there has never been a perfect church. It reminds us that our stylized imaginations about perfection and prestige have never actually played out in reality. It reminds us that even powerful Christian thinkers like Augustine and Peter Abelard had weaknesses that today we would consider damning. It reminds us that thinkers like Origen were once viewed as heretics.

It reminds us that asserting that "The church has always said..." is probably a false statement. It gives us the freedom to try out new things and question old things because the past is no longer an idol of The Best We've Ever Been, but is instead a snapshot of Something We Once Were.

We always need more perspective whether in politics, religion or simply in our everyday life. We need to know our context and we need to try and exaggerate less and hold our judgments more. It's a difficult lesson to learn. It's too easy to be tricked by our proximity to events.

So I ask you to remember this on the day before the election. No matter what rhetoric you hear, this is probably not the most important election in history. Neither of the candidates will likely be the best or worst presidents of all time. More than likely they'll be in a range around slightly below average to slightly above average.

Take a deep breath. Vote if you feel like you should. And remember that it'll probably be okay.


You can follow Ben on Twitter @BenHoward87 or email him at benjamin.howard87 [at]

Also, you can subscribe to On Pop Theology via RSS feed or email on the top right corner of the main page.

No comments:

Post a Comment