Was the United States ever a Christian nation? If a nation is defined primarily in terms of the worldview of the masses and Christianity is characterized by attentiveness and formation from every word of Scripture, then one may follow Elmore and proclaim that for a period in the 1800’s, the United States was, in fact, Christian. This did not seem to be Elmore’s question per se, but it did hover in the background, occasionally garnering a speaking role but usually accentuating the primary actor on center stage, before taking prominence with an extended bow as the current lowered. It should be of little surprise that Elmore, a former attorney, would focus on every word that proceeded from the mouth of America’s most famous lawyer-turned-Congressman-turned-President. Specifically, Elmore captured the resonance of each word in Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address, keenly recognizing the significance of the very fabric of Lincoln’s life. According to Elmore, Lincoln’s favorite written works were the King James Bible, the Anglican Book of Common Prayer, Shakespeare, and the American Declaration of Independence. Each of these works displayed prominently in the carefully chosen words and style of discourse in Lincoln’s address, though the King James Bible stood above the rest.
Over the course of his presentation, Elmore identified a series of words that—upon further consideration—proved to be quite peculiar for the aftermath of a battle amid a ravaging Civil War. These words included “conceive,” “brought forth,” “consecrate,” “hallowed,” “dedicated,” “our Fathers,” and “new birth.” In each case, sometimes cumulatively, Elmore painted a vivid picture of the world in which they were spoken in Gettysburg and the connections to which they testified, especially as Lincoln saw the world and the place of the United States therein. As for Gettysburg, the town displayed a seemingly odd sentiment of faith in preparation of the commemoration of the battlefield and cemetery in Gettysburg. The newspaper announced the forthcoming address by President Lincoln himself. According to Elmore, this faith was neither a generic notion nor an uncalculated choice of words. The people of the Union truly believed that the Battle of Gettysburg was a turning point in the Civil War, a development that lent to restoration of the position of America as a “consecrated” nation.
Lincoln would confirm this identification and, indeed, bolster such association in his close pairing of America with the Christmas event, the birth of Christ as hope of the world and bringer of liberty for all. Elmore offered a variety of evidence to show that Christmas had already become the favored holiday of the American people: earlier in the 1800’s, the centennial of Handel’s Messiah was a highly-regarded anniversary; Dickens had written his A Christmas Carol, which gripped Lincoln in particular; previous celebrations had already prepared for the arrival of Santa Claus amid the Union army. What is more, the Enlightenment ideal of liberty had been tied to the work of Christ and, by connection, Christ’s work became the macrocosm of the profound claim to liberty for all in the Declaration of Independence. While Lincoln would not be so bold as to claim that the Declaration established the United States as the new “chosen nation,” he did see it as testimony of the unique role of the United States, to bring liberty to all. If America failed, the last hope of the world would be gone.
The nation had been born, consecrated, baptized, to do the work of Christ in spreading liberty: “all men are created equal.” The words of Lincoln’s address drew attention to this narrative identity, using words that alluded to the birth of Christ in describing the birth of the US “four-score and seven years ago,” not on the day of the signing of the Constitution but rather the signing of the Declaration that brought independence. Just as the virgin had “conceived” and given birth, the United States was “conceived” and born. Christ was “brought forth” and so was America. Jesus was then “dedicated” in the Temple as an infant; in the present, the battlefield was now being “dedicated” for the re-birth, the baptism by fire, the second baptism of America. The nation had grown old and weary, for it was “four-score and seven years” old—Elmore notes the King James English in the manner of this description, an allusion, he insists, that the masses most certainly would have recognized. Now, at this moment of renewal, “new birth,” Lincoln would “consecrate” the land in honor of those who struggled vigilantly for the “task”—allusions to the Book of Common Prayer (when “consecrating” a new church) and the Israelites’ exodus, respectively. Just as the biblical exodus renewed the task of Israel as the promised people, the American “task” was renewed thanks to the efforts of those Union soldiers who fought at Gettysburg.
For Elmore, the words of Lincoln offer insight into the speech and worldview of a man who saw the world through his reading of the Word and the Book of Common Prayer. On this ground, we may certainly sympathize, even if we wish to correct excesses and idealistic identification of—at least—an Enlightenment-influenced perception of “liberty” in Christ. Further, regardless of the controversial claim, the question hovering in the background, accenting the suit, hat, and words of President Lincoln, receives cause for reevaluation, especially in light of an attempt to understand precisely what it means to live and think as a Christian. The question, even if ultimately dismissed or answered in the negative, challenges the historically-sensitive, Word-driven, Christian to reflect anew on life in Christ.