Mirror of Justice

A blog dedicated to the development of Catholic legal theory.
Affiliated with the Program on Church, State & Society at Notre Dame Law School.

Sunday, February 20, 2022

Lincoln's Humility

This week I read a report about the trend of Americans choosing to relocate in order to live in places that are more closely aligned with their political beliefs. This adds to the “big sort” that has been occurring for years. (From 1992 to 2016, the number of extreme landslide counties — i.e., those decided by margins exceeding 50 percentage points — increased from 93 to 1,196.) A new poll shows that Americans’ trust in the scientific and medical communities varies dramatically based on one’s political affiliation, adding to the partisan gaps we already knew about regarding trust in other social institutions. We’ve always disagreed about particular issues, but those disagreements have intensified, widened, and coalesced around shared identities that shape the ways in which we view the world.
The clash in worldviews can be seen in our reactions to the world around us. How do we feel about recent protests that shut down streets and highways in Minneapolis to bring attention to police practices deemed unjust? How do we feel about recent protests that shut down streets and highways in Ottawa to bring attention to COVID mandates deemed unjust? I’m guessing most of us feel differently about one versus the other, and that’s understandable – we will disagree about injustice, just as we disagree about appropriate tactics employed in pursuing justice. The problem is when that disagreement spirals into dehumanization – i.e., that those who hold different worldviews are not just wrong, but “other.”
There is a better way, and it was modeled 158 years ago by Abraham Lincoln, whom we celebrate tomorrow on Presidents’ Day. His second inaugural address, delivered near the end of a brutal and bloody war, showed a degree of humility that may not even count as a political virtue in today’s climate. Lincoln observed that both sides in the Civil War “read the same Bible and pray to the same God and each invokes His aid against the other.” This was a simple recognition of our shared humanity and shared faith, even at a time when we were killing each other in a conflict over the deeply immoral practice of slavery. Lincoln did not accuse those fighting for the Confederacy of not being “real Christians,” he did not claim that God had personally assured him that the Union’s cause was just, and he did not assert that God's plan for civilization hinged on the outcome of the war. Instead, he recognized that those on the other side were just as sincere in their faith as he was.
Did Lincoln’s humility weaken his resolve to win the war and end slavery? Not at all. Did his empathy for those supporting the Confederacy lead him to look the other way and ignore their support of a deeply unjust institution? Hardly. Humility and empathy shaped the way he engaged his opponents, not his commitment to the moral claims underlying the conflict. I encourage us to reflect on ways we can model Lincoln’s humility: not pulling back from our commitment to justice, but not permitting our commitment to justice to obscure the humanity of those on the other side of the struggle.


Vischer, Rob | Permalink