Darrow Miller and Friends

ABRAHAM LINCOLN: A Bigot by Today’s Standard?

Lincoln would be politically incorrect todayWhat does Abraham Lincoln have to teach us about tolerance?

Some years ago I heard a Christian leader relate a conversation he’d had with his son upon his graduation from public high school. “What values were you taught?” he asked the young man. “No values,” was the grad’s initial reply. But after another moment of thought, he corrected himself: “Actually, there was one value. Tolerance.”

Webster’s 1828 (the dictionary of choice at DMF) defines tolerance as “The power or capacity of enduring; or the act of enduring.” In other words, in a Judeo-Christian  context, tolerance is respecting people even if we disagree with their ideas. In this framework, moral and metaphysical truth exists.

A more modern lexicographer, dictionary.com, includes the above definition. But only in fourth place. Top-of-the-list status goes to “a fair, objective, and permissive attitude toward those whose opinions, practices, race, religion, nationality, etc., differ from one’s own; freedom from bigotry.” This concept of tolerance, grounded in atheistic materialism without absolutes, means we accept all ideas as equally valid. We even tolerate lies and evil.

In other words … and this will sound familiar … here in the West, only one position is forbidden. You must never declare, on moral grounds, “Thou Shalt Not.”

recent post by blogger Michael Metzger dismantles this point of view. His argument is all the more intriguing in that he begins from the recent, award-winning film by Steven Spielberg, Lincoln. Metzger points out that Lincoln’s ability to frame “thou shalt not” statements was exactly what made him such a persuasive leader. He spoke with moral convictions, but without a legalistic or negative  attitude. We would do well to emulate his example. He spoke the truth in love. He challenged the politically correct with moral conviction, yet in a way that honored his opponent as a fellow human being.

Lincoln tapped into the power of negation in language. He wasn’t reticent to utter prohibitions such as Thou Shalt Not. Wilson writes that, “as with Shakespeare and Emily Dickinson, both of whom had a comparable gift, this may be an aspect of Lincoln’s literary genius.”1 Almost all of Lincoln’s rhetorical efforts used negative constructions, or prohibitions, to give his ideas gravitas. One of his most ardent lines – “Fellow-citizens, we cannot escape history” – stuck a cultural nerve, as did his famous notation, “If slavery is not wrong, nothing is wrong.”

In the “tolerance” milieu of the West, what an irony that we honor a president whose greatness, in large measure, lay in his inclination to label certain behaviors wrong. Abraham Lincoln was unfettered by the current definition of tolerance: “… freedom from bigotry.”

Conceivably, by such a standard, the Great Liberator would be considered a bigot today.

Read Metzger’s fine post here.

– Gary Brumbelow

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Gary is the Disciple Nations Alliance editorial manager. He manages Darrow Miller and Friends and serves as editor and co-writer on various book projects. For eight years Gary served as a cross-cultural church planting missionary among First Nations people of Canada. His career also includes 14 years as executive director of InterAct Ministries, an Oregon-based church-planting organization in Canada, Alaska, and Siberia. Gary is a graduate of Grace University, earned an MA from Wheaton College and a Graduate Studies Diploma from Western Seminary. He lives near Portland, Oregon with his wife, Valerie. They have two married sons and twelve grandchildren. In addition to his work with the DNA, Gary serves as the pastor of Troutdale Community Church.