Thought for the Day - Canon Dr Alan Billings - 21/01/2013
Later today Barack Obama will be inaugurated as President of the United States of America for a second term. He will take the oath of office laying his left hand on two copies of the Bible. They had once belonged to the civil war President, Abraham Lincoln, and the civil rights leader, Dr Martin Luther King Jr.
These Bibles testify to the part Biblical faith has played in American politics. Those who opposed slavery, for instance, appealed to the Bible and the Declaration of Independence. The Bible said that all bear God's image, the Declaration that all are created equal. Yet there was always a contradiction between those expressions of equal worth and the treatment of African Americans. Lincoln and King are revered for ending the contradiction. Abraham Lincoln, a Republican president, set the slaves free, though without ending discrimination. King, who would not endorse any party publicly, sought an end to discrimination through the civil rights movement. President Obama, an African American, symbolises the journey the United States has made since it first asserted its independence.
The Bible has shaped America's political perspectives in two further ways, both of which we see in the politics of Lincoln and King.
First there is an understanding that we live in a fallen world. Since the Enlightenment, especially in Europe, there has been a repeated temptation to assume that progress, including moral progress, is somehow inevitable. That people will increasingly behave rationally. That each generation is more civilized than the one before. That good does not have to be constantly fought for, or evil resisted. That there is always a forward movement and never any falling back.
The Biblical presumption, however, is that individuals, and more particularly groups, will always tend to behave in their own self-interest. Those with power in a slave society or those with privileges in an unjust one, will not surrender power or privilege without a struggle. Lincoln and King understood this and accepted its implication – that clashes of interests mean that, sometimes, coercion for the sake of justice is necessary. For Lincoln that involved civil war, for King commitment to the non-violent, though no less coercive, civil rights movement.
The second way in which biblical faith affected their conduct was in the generosity they displayed towards enemies. President Lincoln understood more than most how bruising it can be when different interests clash; but, to borrow words from his own second inaugural address, the reformer must press on with malice towards none and charity for all.
When President Obama makes his speech today he will look towards the Lincoln Memorial from where Martin Luther King declared, 'I have a dream'. Lincoln and King set an example of unflinching moral realism. But they also understood the need for reconciliation and the healing of wounds.