The Political Theology of Lincoln and Melville

It’s hard to think of any historical moment that more deserves political theological reflection than the American Civil War, yet a very quick Google Scholar search turns up only one book (Mark Noll, The Civil War as a Theological Crisis) that uses the phrase “political theology” (once, in passing) in its discussion of the event. Why is the Civil War so richly deserving of entering the ranks of privileged political theological points of reference (along with Schmitt’s and Benjamin’s focus on the European Baroque with its doctrine of absolute sovereignty, or Agamben’s camp and the Musselman, or Hardt and Negri’s Empire, to name a few)? Consider the constellation of factors: the crisis of sovereignty, the friend-foe decision, the state of emergency, the status of the human reduced to bare life, and, not the least significant factor, the claim made by North and South to be waging a battle for the future of Christendom. And there are two texts from the period that I think deserve a place in the canon of political theological thought from Paul to Augustine, and from Hobbes to Arendt (I rank her Human Condition as one of the 20th century’s top political theological works). The great thing is that they are both short, even shorter than Epistle to the Romans. One of them is amazingly short: Abraham Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address. The other is a little longer: Herman Melville’s Supplement to his Civil War poetry collection, Battle Pieces. (Here is a PDF link to Melville’s collection; the Supplement begins on pg. 178.) I want to talk a little bit about both texts, starting with the second.

Melville explains the cause of the war: “the erecting in our advanced century of an Anglo-American empire based upon the systematic degradation of man.” The political theology themes are raised clearly: the conjunction of progressivist/enlightenment ideology with a systematic reduction of humanity to bare life. The reference to “Anglo-American” suggests the racial basis of the empire, something made explicit in the so-called “Cornerstone Speech” given in the opening days of the Confederacy by its newly minted Vice President, Alexander Stephens: “Our new government is founded upon … the great truth that the negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery subordination to the superior race is his natural and normal condition. This, our new government, is the first, in the history of the world, based upon this great physical, philosophical, and moral truth.” Stephens goes on to make the point that the Confederacy is the most advanced and enlightened of all nations: “It is the first government ever instituted upon the principles in strict conformity to nature, and the ordination of Providence, in furnishing the materials of human society.” Melville refuses to base his rejection of this attempt to build a racist empire upon the ground of theological dogma of any kind. In fact, he appeals to the groundless uncertainty (shall we call it undecideability) that makes self-righteousness impossible: “Let us revere that sacred uncertainty which forever impends over men and nations. Those of us who always abhorred slavery as an atheistical iniquity, gladly we join in the exulting chorus of humanity over its downfall. But we should remember that emancipation was accomplished not by deliberate legislation. Only through agonized violence could so mighty a result be effected. In our natural solicitude to confirm the benefit of liberty to the blacks let us forbear from measures of dubious constitutional rightfulness toward our white countrymen, measures of a nature to provoke, among other of the last evils, exterminating hatred of race toward race.” A political theology based upon anything except “that sacred uncertainty” (and perhaps we should consider that this uncertainty, for Melville, extends even to the existence of God, let alone of which side he is on). And any political theology that raises the flag of a permanent “state of exception” in which “constitutional rightfulness” is nullified, runs the risk of legitimizing “exterminating hatred” as its extralegal principle.

Finally, a word about Lincoln’s Second Inaugural. Like Melville, he rejects any appeal to certainty that God is on the side of the North and the South is in thrall to the Devil. “Both read the same Bible and pray to the same God, and each invokes His aid against the other. 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.” Lincoln acknowledges that it is the entire nation that is suffering, and, if God’s hand that is behind the war, it falls on both the North and South equally, for their equal culpability. In words that can only astonish someone who has mostly heard the din of self-righteous zealotry from the mouths of most politicians, Lincoln has the audacity to draw down the full force of God’s wrath upon his nation for its sin of slavery: “Fondly do we hope, fervently do we pray, that this mighty scourge of war may speedily pass away. Yet, if God wills that it continue until all the wealth piled by the bondsman’s two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash shall be paid by another drawn with the sword, as was said three thousand years ago, so still it must be said `the judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether.’”

What makes Melville and Lincoln deserve a place in the canon of political theological texts is that they understand that divine justice cannot be executed by one human against another, and to think that one is empowered to do so is to set up the conditions of “exterminating hatred.” Divine justice, if it exists—and this must be the heart of a “sacred uncertainty”—demands the rejection of both forms of humanity’s hybris: the attempt to build an empire upon the systematic degradation of one’s fellow human, and the attempt to wage a permanent war upon this empire as if it were in thrall to the Antichrist. In both forms of hybris, whether it means an empire built on slavery or a war upon the Antichrist, humanity is playing God and taking his justice into its own hands against itself. Political theology, if it does nothing else, should “mind the gap” between divine and human justice. To imagine that there is no gap is suicidal.

12 thoughts on “The Political Theology of Lincoln and Melville

  1. Great post. I’m feeling the need to reread Billy Budd after coming across Arend’t discussion of Melville’s political relevance in On Revolution

  2. I wonder if one issue is the general anti-Americanism of political theology and continental philosophy types — perhaps even of plain old theologians as well. There’s an assumption that America is an intellectual backwater compared to Europe, and that would hold (at least!) double for our religious traditions. I know I’m guilty of that.

  3. I agree with Adam, but I’d also add two additional-related factors. First, is the anti-liberalism on the part of anti-American thinkers like Schmitt and Agamben, and I’d throw in Taubes as well. Second, is the origin of the political theology discourse out of the cauldron of fascism and totalitarianism (Schmitt, Strauss, and Benjamin). Once you go the route of Lincoln and Melville, then you’re just one step shy of the liberalism of Emerson and Dewey.

  4. Reblogged this on jewish philosophy place and commented:
    A A very nice post by Bruce Rosenstock on teh political theology of
    Lincoln and Melville. Bruce wants to know why Linclon and Melville
    aren’t included on the
    political theology lists. Adam Kotsko thinks it has to do with anti-Americanism and Eurocentrism. I agree and all think it has to do with the with the antiliberalism and fascim that inspired so
    much o the discourse (Schmitt, Strauss, Benjamin, Taubes, and Agamben)

  5. Agamben briefly discusses The Civil War and Lincoln in his genealogy of the state of exception–first chapter of SoE. Very briefly, but I don’t think he identifies Lincoln as doing political theology; just acting like a dictator and early practitioner of the unitary executive theory. Interesting reflections.

  6. I find Lincoln to be fascinating in this regard, chiefly because speeches like the second inaugural address are so compelling while at the same time, as Craig mentioned, Lincoln marks the beginning of the unitary executive and the semi-permanent state of exception we currently enjoy.

  7. If we are in a “semi-permanent state of exception,” is it the case the Civil War never ended? Now Schmitt does tell us that we live in a condition of global civil war. But this time shouldn’t we be on the side of Secession? What would this look like? I’m reminded of the famous P. K. Dick novel, The Man in the High Castle. If we think we live in a state of exception, don’t we find ourselves switching back and forth between sides in an endless and futile effort to escape from the mirror images projected by friend and foe? This seems to be a nihilistic version of Melville’s and Lincoln’s rejection of the Manichean split between friend and foe as the side of God vs. the side of the Devil. If the two sides are undecideable because their whole identity is simply to be committed to the annihilation of the other, then don’t we need more than ever the political theology of Lincoln and Melville that teaches us to renounce the cycle of retribution? And wouldn’t that mean also renouncing the view that we live in a permanent state of exception, a permanent civil war? If we read Lincoln and Melville as making confessions such as might be heard at a truth and reconciliation tribunal and then hoping to bring their former enemies to do the same, is this a gesture made in the spirit of a “semi-permanent state of exception”? I take them to be perfectly aware of the danger of setting up such a permanent state of civil war, and exactly enacting and calling for the avoidance of this danger.

  8. I was more thinking of the fact that Lincoln suspended habeas corpus, began collecting income tax for the first time, further entrenched a permanent standing Federal army, which then went on to exterminate the majority of the remaining Native Americans. For all of Lincoln’s beautiful public speech, there is an equal amount of cynical and opportunistic private correspondence on the consolidation of state power. It would be very difficult to establish what Lincoln was and was not enacting simply by reading what he wrote or said. In this way, the comparisons between him and Obama are apt.

  9. @Hill: Yes, it is hard to judge a human being only by his words. And yes, Lincoln was directly and indirectly responsible for much that we today cannot excuse. I am unprepared to enter into the debate surrounding Lincoln’s motives or his policies. But let’s focus on the second inaugural address. What it represents is not only words, let us remember, but also a deed. A personal and collective confession of guilt in the face of the one of the greatest evils ever perpetrated by any state. At a inaugural intending to celebrate that state’s power. Nothing excuses the evil, he says. Is there anything more we can add to his own self-accusation or to his denunciation of the state and its complicity in evil?

  10. @Craig: Yeah, Schmitt also compared Hitler to Babo, the insurrectionist slave leader being transported on board Cereno’s ship. This was his way of absolving himself of responsibility for his role in Nazi Germany (defending the extralegal murders on the Night of the Long Knives, helping to Aryanize the bar and constructing sophisticated anti-Jewish arguments in his books, promulgating the Grossraum doctrine and the abrogation of international treaties, and, no less significant than all this, lending legitimacy to Hitler’s regime simply by virtue of his tremendous intellectual stature both within and without Germany). He was saying: Look, I had a blade at my throat. (Read the story if this is not clear.) And more: And look, here is what I think of that man, he’s no better than a ‘savage’ compared to me, a cultured and sensitive Catholic. And he even manages to put Roosevelt in a good light, since he draws attention to the fact that the American captain who saves Cereno is named Delano. The theoretical payout of all this is simply this: Schmitt is Melville’s evil twin. Melville’s story shows what dehumanization does to everyone involved, from perpetrators to victims to ‘bystander.’ If there is a hero, it is Babo. But the bottom line, moral judgments have been so deeply corrupted by slavery that ‘civilization’ is entirely moribund, and its symbol is the blind staring head of Babo hoisted on a pole in the central plaza of the Chilean city where was tried (and Cereno dies soon after haunted by ‘the black’). And, a final, rather scary, link between Melville’s story and Hitler’s Germany: the mutinied ship, after being captured by Babo, has a motto painted on its helm: Follow your Leader! That would be Fűhrer in German.

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