Obama and his Lincoln buzz

politics | Jan 06, 2009 | By James M. Thunder

Although the press is abuzz with reports of President-elect Obama comparing himself favorably with President Abraham Lincoln, with what irony does the first black president disavow Lincoln’s principle and plan to compel taxpayers to fund slavery in the United States!

A sampling of the parallels where Obama compares himself favorably to Lincoln includes:

--On February 10, 2007, when he announced his candidacy at the state Capitol in Springfield, Illinois, Obama cited Lincoln's "House Divided" speech which had been delivered on that site, and said that Lincoln had called on a divided house to stand together. Obama stated that, like Lincoln, he wants to unite our country.

-- On Election Night in Grant Park, Chicago, Obama stated Lincoln was about “self-reliance, individual liberty and national unity.”  Following Obama’s election, a number of editorial cartoons showed Abraham Lincoln and Martin Luther King, Jr., pleased with the Illinois senator’s ascent to the mountaintop.

-- On a November 16, 2008 “60 Minutes” broadcast, Obama stated that he had “been spending a lot of time reading Lincoln. There is a wisdom there and a humility about his approach to government, even before he was president, that I just find very helpful.” And he cites a book on Lincoln for a concept of putting together his Cabinet.

-- On November 23, MSNBC had an article about President-elect Obama and his transition. Accompanying it was a picture of Obama carrying a book with the word Lincoln on it.

-- The official inauguration theme will be “A Birth of New Freedom,” inspired by the phrase in the Gettysburg Address of “a new birth of freedom.”

-- Obama will arrive in Washington, D.C. for his inauguration by train to imitate Lincoln.

-- Obama will swear his constitutional oath upon the same Bible used by Lincoln when that oath was administered to him by Chief Justice Roger B. Taney.

-- Obama will invoke Lincoln during his Inaugural Address, according to a report on November 6, 2008 by the Washington Post. .

It is predicted that more favorable comparisons between Lincoln and Obama will be made as we approach the 200th birthday of Lincoln just a few weeks after the Inauguration. Illinois license plates proclaim the state as the “Land of Lincoln.”

I understand fully that Obama, who taught law in Illinois, was a state senator in Illinois, served as U.S. Senator from Illinois, and has been elected president, would spend time reflecting on Abraham Lincoln. Thus far, however, Obama has demonstrated a superficial understanding of what Lincoln was all about. In stating that Lincoln was about “national unity,” Obama ignores the fact that Lincoln’s election divided an already polarized country, causing the South to secede. The important point was that the division was over Lincoln’s principle.

What principle? We need to look first at Obama’s response to Pastor Rick Warren’s question at his Saddleback Church to candidates Obama and McCain in August: “At what point does a baby get human rights in your view?” The first part of Obama’s answer was: "Well, I think that whether you are looking at it from a theological perspective or a scientific perspective, answering that question with specificity, you know, is above my pay grade. One thing that I'm absolutely convinced of is that there is a moral and ethical element to this issue. And so I think that anybody who tries to deny the moral difficulties and gravity of the abortion issue is not paying attention."

The first issue, when human life begins, is indeed scientific (not theological). During the campaign, Obama promised the employees of the Environmental Protection Agency, in writing, that he would be committed to science over ideology and politics, as noted by a November 17, 2008 article in the Washington Post.

So, it should not be above his pay grade as president to learn the relevant science and ignore ideology and politics. Embryology teaches that an individual of the species Homo sapiens is procreated at conception. Obama might want to look at an article by Maureen L. Condic, MD, “When Does Human Life Begin?: A Scientific Perspective.”

The next issue is what moral value should be granted human life. This is where Lincoln comes in. His principle was this: There are no sub-human human beings; every individual of the species Homo sapiens is worthy of equal dignity in law.

There might be those who would limit Lincoln’s principle to slavery or racism. They need to remove their blinders. It would be difficult to find an American whose ancestral people has not been kidnapped, enslaved, imprisoned, sent to concentration camps, relocated to reservations, raped, mutilated, starved, killed (by a variety of means: drowning, burial alive, drawing and quartering, lynching).

It would be difficult to find an American whose ancestral people has not been refused education and whose religion and language have not been suppressed. Each of us – African, Irish, Korean, Jew, Armenian, Native American, and on and on -- thinks the oppression of our people was unique -- uniquely horrendous.

Obama, like so many others, does not apply Lincoln’s principle to abortion and embryonic stem cell research. Republicans for their part cannot look at these issues without seeing them through Lincoln’s eyes. Would that all Americans would do so! And there can be no Republican Party worthy of the name (notwithstanding the pleas of the former Republican governor of New Jersey, Christine Todd Whitman and others, in an editorial “Free the GOP: The Party Won’t Win Back the Middle as Long as It’s Hostage to Social Fundamentalists,” in the Washington Post after the November election) unless the Party adheres to the enduring principle of Lincoln. Lincoln’s disciples are not “social fundamentalists”; we are human rights activists!

Rather than imitating Lincoln, Obama walks in the shoes of another senator from Illinois.

Jeffrey Lord has recounted the long history of the support of the Democratic Party for slavery and segregation for which that Party has offered no apology, in “Democrats: The Missing Years,” published by the American Spectator in August 2008. See also the book by Bruce Bartlett, “Wrong on Race: The Democratic Party's Buried Past.” Obama and the Democrats would prefer to forget that history and to forget a young, energetic, articulate senator from Illinois, Stephen A. Douglas (1813-1861), who, as the nominee of the Democratic Party for president in 1860, was Lincoln’s opponent.

More than two years before that election, on June 16, 1858, 150 years ago this year, Lincoln was nominated by the Republican Party of Illinois for the U.S. Senate. This nomination was extraordinary because of its timing. Before senators were elected directly, parties became involved in senate campaigns only insofar as they were active in the election of the state legislators. The Republican Party's nomination of Lincoln in June , well before the November election of the state legislators, made the Lincoln/Douglas debates in the fall of 1858 possible.

Lincoln and Senator Douglas, the leading Democrat nationally in 1858, had sparred before. Lincoln had hounded him all over the state for the previous four years. Although Lincoln had interests in a number of public policy issues, he attacked Douglas on a single issue: slavery.

Moreover, the Republican Party that Lincoln helped form from Democrats and Whigs and Know-Nothings was a single-issue party: slavery. Lincoln and his Republicans held two positions: slavery was a great moral wrong, and slavery would not be allowed outside its historic base notwithstanding that slavery was constitutional and legal.

Neither Lincoln nor the Republican Party strove to identify common ground with the other parties – there could be none.

Of course there were moral issues other than slavery in 1858, but we today would not contradict Lincoln that slavery was the greatest moral wrong of his time.

Douglas saw it differently and he had a great deal of voter support in Illinois and throughout the nation -- in 1858 and of course in 1860. He dismissed the idea that the morality of slavery was a problem that should concern the public. He was pro-choice. He asserted that people should be free to choose to own slaves or not, that people who did not own slaves should not interfere with those who did, and that the people of every state should be free to choose to allow or prohibit slavery in their respective states.

What is the greatest domestic moral wrong today? American involvement in the Iraq war? The civil liberties at risk in countering terrorism? How we treat detainees? Capital punishment? The treatment of illegal immigrants? Universal health care? The failure to educate our children? Unbridled borrowing and lending?

Some would argue that it is abortion.

I would not disagree but I submit that abortion is one piece of a large and ugly pie, namely, the destruction of the family as a moral unit. As a moral unit, the family consists of a husband and wife with obligations to each other, to their young, and to their elderly relatives.

It is a moral community that deserves our respect and our support, including support in the form of legislation and public policies, without any derogation of privileges proper to the marital state. Instead, the family as a moral unit is dying from both grievous wounds and a thousand cuts, many of them enabled by our government through legislative or judicial or executive action or inaction:

–liberal divorce;
–the repeal of alienation of affections tort suits allowing interlopers to destroy a marriage with impunity;
–the artificial insemination of unmarried women;
–embryonic stem cell research;
–same sex marriage;
–in vitro fertilization and the procreation of hundreds of thousands of unwanted and frozen embryonic human beings;
–euthanasia of the frail and elderly and suicidal;
–pornography accessible in our homes, our workplaces, our cellphones;
–surrogate motherhood.

But let us confine ourselves for the moment to abortion and stem cell research.

In today’s great moral drama, Obama has taken the stage and is playing the part of the heavy. Like Douglas, he is pro-choice. Like Douglas, he believes people should be free to choose – free to choose to enslave – yes, you read that right, enslave -- embryonic human beings for scientific research.

The Vatican has called embryonic stem cell research slavery. See the Holy See's contribution to the World Conference Against Racism, Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia and Related Intolerance, held at Durban, South Africa, in 2001 where it referred to the research as “a new and terrible form of slavery”. And in Professor Diana Schaub’s review of the book-length “Human Cloning and Human Dignity: The Report of the President’s Council on Bioethics,” she has called the creation of human embryos for research and subsequent destruction slavery. Slavery is the state of an individual of the species Homo sapiens being wholly subjected to the control of another individual. As I have argued elsewhere, Congress should enact legislation banning such research under Section 2 of the 13th Amendment.

Like Douglas, Obama believes people should be free to choose – in Obama’s case, free to choose to abort their young. He resists any legal restriction on this choice, such as Illinois legislation protecting children who survive their attempted abortion (see National Right to Life white paper, Aug. 28, 2008, www.nrlc.org), requiring notice to parents of a minor, and prohibiting infanticide in the form of partial-birth abortion.

When Bill Clinton ran for the presidency in 1992, he promised to make abortions “safe, legal, and rare.” He never got to the rare part. Obama has observed, including in the course of his comments at Saddleback with Pastor Warren, that Americans share the common ground that we should reduce the number of abortions. He’ll never get that far because, like Clinton did within days of assuming office, Obama will first remove any legal restrictions on abortions he can through executive order. This was noted by Obama’s transition team in “Advancing Reproductive Rights and Health in a New Administration,” which was a policy report that was posted and then removed from its website Change.gov. This will cause an increase in the number of abortions.

Obama may choose not to push pro-abortion legislation as a high priority, persuaded perhaps by the kinds of arguments raised in Michael Gerson, “3 Showdowns to Avoid,” and E.J. Dionne, Jr., “Obama’s Promise to Pro-Lifers,” in the Washington Post, but there is little doubt he will issue executive orders providing use of taxpayers’ money for abortions in military facilities, for embryonic stem cell research, and for counseling on abortion abroad. Steven W. Mosher, who brought news to the world of China’s coerced abortions, a policy confirmed by Colin Powell when he served as Secretary of State, has decried this last development in the PRI Weekly Briefing.

Moreover, in promising to sign into law a Freedom of Choice Act as he did at a Planned Parenthood meeting in 2007, Obama clearly agrees to its provisions including taxpayer funding of abortions and the elimination of conscientious objection by hospitals and doctors to the performance of abortions. He is blind to the fact that this is like requiring people who resided in free states in the 1850s to return fugitive slaves.

Obama has an opportunity to act like Lincoln -- not in oratory, not in traveling by train, not in selecting Cabinet members – but by adopting Lincoln’s principle and applying it to today’s great moral drama. Thus far, however, Obama has chosen to speak and act like Stephen Douglas. Some day there will be an accounting and Americans will deride Obama for his failure to respect human life like we today deride the slave-owning Washington and Jefferson. It will matter not that Obama did some "good things;" that is an argument roundly rejected when it was urged for example by a Japanese general about the “good things” done during the Japanese occupation of Korea before and during World War II.

Lincoln placed his hand on a Bible supported by the hand of Chief Justice Roger B. Taney, the author of the infamous Dred Scott decision. When Obama places his hand on that same Bible on January 20, whose hand will he be imitating?

James M. Thunder was born and raised in Illinois and is a member of the Illinois bar. He is former general counsel of Americans United for Life. 

Sources: Christine Todd Whitman

Saddleback Church,



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