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Originally published Sunday, February 19, 2012 at 4:00 PM

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Abraham Lincoln: the balance between moral certainty and moral humility

On this Presidents Day, our leaders would do well to remember Abraham Lincoln's moral humility, says the pastor of the Saltwater Unitarian Universalist Church in Des Moines.

Special to The Times

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ABRAHAM Lincoln was adamant about not identifying God's will with his own.

According to Lincoln's theology, God's will was often inscrutable to human beings. As he said memorably in his second inaugural address, "The Almighty has His own purposes," and Lincoln believed it was not easy to know what those purposes were.

During the Civil War, a minister told Lincoln that he hoped "the Lord is on our side." The president responded that he constantly prayed "that I and this nation should be on the Lord's side."

Even on the issue of slavery, Lincoln refused to say that God condemned slavery. In September 1862, Lincoln wrote a letter to a group of religious leaders from Chicago, who had urged him to free the nation's slaves, saying that it was God's desire that he do so. In his reply, Lincoln said that there were other ministers who were "equally certain that they represented the divine will," who gave him the opposite advice.

On another occasion Lincoln said regarding slavery, "... it is my earnest desire to know the will of Providence in this matter. And if I can learn what it is, I will do it." However, because these were not "the days of miracles," he said, he didn't expect to receive a direct revelation. He "must study the plain physical facts of the case ... and learn what appears to be wise and right."

Lincoln wasn't wishy-washy on the morality of slavery. In his own mind, he was certain it was a moral abomination. But by refusing to claim that God judged slavery to be wrong, Lincoln left open the possibility that he might be wrong.

It was also for this reason that during the war, Lincoln never prayed to God to give victory to the North. Even when he gave his second inaugural address, when the Civil War was almost over, Lincoln cautioned his Northern listeners against taking a morally superior attitude toward the nearly defeated South. He said, "It may seem strange that any men should dare to ask a just God's assistance in wringing their bread from the sweat of other men's faces; but let us judge not that we be not judged."

I admire Lincoln's refusal to identify God's will with his own. His refusal to do so is the rare exception in U.S. politics.

Most presidents who have led this nation into war have claimed God to be on the side of the United States. Many other political leaders, on both the right and the left, have claimed God to be on their side on many issues. Or, if they haven't made claims about God, they've claimed to be absolutely certain of the morality of their position.

This is a dangerous stance, because anytime anyone believes either that God is on his or her side or claims to be absolutely certain of the morality of his or her position, it leads to a kind of self-righteousness that justifies violence and coercion and rules out the possibility of discussion and compromise.

Lincoln modeled the balance between moral certainty and moral humility. He was certain enough about his beliefs to act on them, but humble enough about his beliefs to acknowledge at least the possibility he might be wrong.

Can we imagine how different our country might be today if more of our leaders practiced the same kind of moral humility?

The Rev. Dr. James Kubal-Komoto is minister of Saltwater Church, a Unitarian Universalist congregation in Des Moines.

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