Let's start with his talk of reports of fighting coming in from Gettysburg in 1863: "everyone seemed panic-stricken," but Lincoln "got down on my knees before Almighty God and prayed. ... Soon a sweet comfort crept into my soul that God Almighty had taken the whole business into his hands."
Many journalists today might think that sentiment creepy, but would not strenuously object as long as Lincoln kept his religion personal and removed from public pronouncements or policy-making. Lincoln, though, did not compartmentalize. He proclaimed in 1863 that "by Divine law, nations like individuals are subjected to punishments and chastisement in the world," and called the Civil War "a punishment inflicted upon us for our presumptuous sins to the needful end of our national reformation as a whole people."
What if President Bush, like Lincoln, "complained of people who had become "too self-sufficient to feel the necessity of redeeming and preserving grace"? What if Bush, like Lincoln, spoke of how "we have forgotten the gracious Hand which preserved us in peace, and multiplied and enriched and strengthened us; and we have vainly imagined, in the deceitfulness of our hearts, that all these blessings were produced by some superior wisdom and virtue of our own"?
It would be unlike Bush to talk about the deceitfulness of our hearts or the problems of feeling self-sufficient -- he emphasizes uplift rather than critique -- but if he did so he would be roundly criticized for mixing religion and politics.
Lincoln early and late mulled over God's relation to the Civil War. In 1862, he wrote a "Meditation on the Divine Will" not for public consumption but as a private attempt to think through what was beyond human understanding. "The will of God prevails," Lincoln wrote. "In great contests, each party claims to act in accordance with the will of God. Both may be, and one must be wrong, (for) God cannot be for and against the same thing at the same time.
Who was right? Lincoln wrote, "In the present civil war, it is quite possible that God's purpose is something different from the purpose of either party. ... I am almost ready to say this is probably true -- that God wills the contest, and wills that it shall not end yet. By his mere quiet power, on the minds of the now contestants, He could have either saved or destroyed the Union without a human contest. Yet the contest began. And having begun He could give the final victory to either side any day. Yet the contest proceeds."
By the time Lincoln gave his second inaugural address in 1865, he had decided that God's will was to punish the South, and the North that had profited from slavery as well: "Fondly do we hope -- fervently do we pray -- that this mighty scourge of war might speedily pass away. Yet if God wills that it continue, until all the wealth piled by the bond-man's 200 years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash, shall be paid with another drawn with the sword, as was said 3,000 years ago so still it must be said, ?the judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether.'"
If President Bush ever spoke in such terms, he would be assaulted in the press for basing policy on religious considerations. He'd probably be gawked at by a public used to hearing about private devotional activity but not thoughts about God's will in regard to great events. Right now, most Americans don't blame Bush for talking about his beliefs at times -- many Americans like that. But he could not speak now with the tragic sensibility of Lincoln. We have progressed so far that America of the 21st century is not ready for Lincoln.