Abraham Lincoln is best known for being the American president who held the country together during a long and bloody civil war and who engineered the end to American slavery. He is unique Lincoln, Abraham among American presidents, however, for also being considered a spiritual exemplar-not just by Americans but also by countless millions around the world. Lincoln is considered a spiritual exemplar for the virtues that defined his character, for his remarkable ability to make sound moral judgments about complex moral issues, and for his powerful faith in American democracy and in an all-powerful, just, caring, and mysterious God.
Lincoln had many virtues. Some were there from the beginning, while others developed later on under the stresses and strains of the presidency. His enduring virtues included honesty, self-discipline, simplicity, and compassion. His developed virtues included forbearance in the face of disrespect, and ridicule and steadfastness in the face of opposition and failure. Moral judgment develops to the extent that it can handle increasingly complex and ambiguous moral dilemmas. Nowhere do we see this more clearly than in Lincoln's presidency. Lincoln faced several painful and complex moral dilemmas, but none more painful and complex than that between abolishing slavery and preserving the union.
Unlike the abolitionists of his time, Lincoln advocated going slow when opposing slavery. His slow and patient approach, what one biographer referred to as his "deadly moderation" toward ending slavery, won him disapproval and distrust. So, in managing the union-slavery dilemma, Lincoln's patient calculations constituted a spiritual achievement inasmuch as they were carried out at great personal sacrifice.
As for Lincoln's faith, early on in his political career, Lincoln expressed a strong faith in the American Constitution, in the legal system, and in the American way of government in general. However, in the 1850s when it was clear that the constitution, the legal system, and the government were upholding slavery, Lincoln's faith underwent a dramatic transformation.
What emerged in the late 1850s and especially during Lincoln's presidency was a powerful faith that fueled and guided Lincoln's leadership. That faith had two central ideas. The first was the idea expressed in the great democratic principle defined in the Declaration of Independence. The second was the idea of God being all-powerful, just, caring, and mysterious. Faith is not the same as belief, so it would be wrong to say that these two ideas were important because they were Lincoln's beliefs. They were important, rather, because Lincoln took them to define who we are or should be, and because he worked tirelessly to help make that happen. His faith, then, showed as much in his acting (or more so) as in his believing. Lincoln came to view the American Declaration of Independence's principle that all should have equal rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness as something sacred and as something to have faith in. He took this principle to be the cornerstone of American democracy and a spiritual guide for the nation. This was Lincoln's message in his moral battles against slavery, and this too was his message at Gettysburg. But during his presidency and under the strains of prosecuting the bloodiest war in American history, Lincoln's faith became increasingly religious as it centered on a simple, yet powerful image of God. For Lincoln, God is almighty, just, caring and mysterious. For him, we "poor mortals" can never fathom God's intentions but can only place our hopes in God, trusting that He will bring good even out of tragedy.
This image of an almighty, just, caring, and mysterious God was there for Lincoln from the beginning to the end of the war-to sustain and guide him. Throughout the war, Lincoln expressed his anxieties about the future and his despair about the recent past. And often, his expressions of anxiety and despair were followed by reference to his image of God, which seemed to mollify his anxiety and despair. Because he believed God was in charge, Lincoln managed his anxieties and doubts enough to free him to find reasonable ways to act. Its other function was to help Lincoln act independently while remaining thoughtful and responsible, especially in the face of opposition by those with religious motives.
During the Civil War, then, Lincoln's faith sustained him in his trials, and kept him steadfast and able to make the many hard political and military decisions he had to make. But even more important, throughout the war, Lincoln's religious faith in a mysterious yet just and caring and all-powerful God kept him morally responsible, compassionate, and humble. For his character, his moral judgment, and his faith, then, Lincoln was indeed a spiritual exemplar.