Nov. 18, 2011
We already know who the featured speaker at the Gettysburg Address Sesquicentennial will be. Organizers of this one hundred fiftieth celebration have asked President Obamatwo years ahead of 2013--to lead the list of distinguished Americans expected to commemorate President Lincolns immortal words, delivered November 19, 1863. Event planners must be assuming that Mr. Obama will be re-elected. It would be awkward, wouldnt it, to have him be the lead speaker if he has been defeated for office?
Well, awkward fits. President Lincoln went up to Gettysburg by train the afternoon before the cemeterys dedication. He tried to get some sleep that night, but revelers kept him up with their drinking and singing. The party atmosphere that prevailed in Gettysburg at that time was worse than awkward; it was ghastly. Lincoln seems not to have noted it.
Nor did he mind being asked merely to deliver some appropriate remarks. The President of the United States, the commander-in-chief of the greatest armies and navy this country had ever assembled, the Great Emancipator himself, was given only a secondary role in the ceremony. It reminds us of the story of Lincoln greeting an old friend from Illinois. The visitor expressed surprise that the nations leader should be blacking his own boots. Whose boots should I black, Lincoln asked humorously.
I have been to Gettysburg dozens of times. I never tire of seeing that battlefield and walking through that National Cemetery, that hallowed ground. I took scores of students there on field studies. I made a point always of having them join hands atop the monument to the 20th Maine Regiment, the unit commanded by Col. Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain.
Chamberlains men were running out of ammunition on Little Round Top as the 15th Alabama Regiment charged that critical point. If the rebels succeeded, they would be able to mount cannon on that high point and rake the entire Union left. Chamberlain ordered his men, mostly Maine fisherman and lumberjacks, to fix bayonets and counter charge their foes. The Alabamians had never tasted defeat until that moment.
The 20th Maine monument is not like many of the others at Gettysburg. Rich, powerful Northern states like New York and Pennsylvania, erected grand memorial palaces in the post-war years to tell the world what their sons had done.
Southerners, stricken by defeat and poverty, nonetheless, dug deep into their pockets to erect the most moving tributes to the sons of the Lost Cause who died at Gettysburg. My great great Uncle Jonas Lipps survived that battle, and a dozen others, only to die in a Union prison camp at age 24.
The 20th Maine monument is most moving in its simplicity. It is made of cheap stone. Those Mainers were just fishermen and loggers, after all. Still, it touches something deep in our hearts. It was for just such menand their descendants--that President Lincoln carried on this great peoples struggle. He said it was not just a war for the present, but for a vast future.
I take inspiration from Lincolns words on that great dedicatory occasion. He finished his brief 272-word address saying this nationunder Godwould have a new birth of freedom, and that government of the people, by the people, for the people shall not perish from the earth.
We are engaged today in a great cultural clash, more protracted and more wrenching in many ways than even that civil war. For many in our national leadership, including President Obama, the fate of millions yet unborn is merely matter of constitutionally protected choice. Their lives, their yearning to breathe free, is a matter of no special concern to this administration. In fact, under Mr. Obamas health care law, the destruction of the millions of unborn children will proceed with government financial support.
In Lincolns time, the federal government was pledged to return runaway slaves to their owners. Only with Emancipation did that policy officially end. He said it most eloquently: Nothing stamped in the divine image was sent into the world to be trod upon. I have had the privilege this fall of seeing ultra-sound images of my grandchildren, twins stamped in that divine image. Their right to be is not above our pay grade.
I appeal to President Obama: Dont wait until 2013; go to Gettysburg now. Mr. President, you should seriously study Abraham Lincolns words and his principles. Lincoln always said he would not play the Pharisee. He would not impute to himself all righteousness. He had vast sympathy for others points of view. But he knew and he said that if slavery was not wrong, nothing is wrong. We know that if abortion is not wrong, nothing is wrong.
To protect life at its most vulnerable has always been right. In doing so, we must try to win over our opponents. To achieve this, we should remember Lincolns modest stand. He did not claim that the Lord was on his side: I am not at all concerned about that, for I know that the Lord is always on the side of the right. But it is my constant anxiety and prayer that I and this nation should be on the Lords side.