Those planning the inauguration did not miss that convergence. Sen. Dianne Feinstein announced on Nov. 6 that the Joint Congressional Committee on Inaugural Ceremonies had chosen “A New Birth of Freedom” as the theme for the inauguration. Those words come from the Gettysburg address, wherein Abraham Lincoln expressed the hope that the sacrifices of those who died to preserve the union shall lead to “a new birth of freedom” for America.
Before the glow of such historic significance dims, the new president will need to get down to work. Will his presidency demonstrate the substance of the 200-year-old predecessor, or will its value be limited to its symbolism?
President-elect (at this writing) Obama hopes that the convergence of the two lives will prove to be far more than coincidental. Six months before his election, he reflected on one of the less touted aspects of the Lincoln presidency, his decision to surround himself with A Team of Rivals, the title of a recent book by Doris Kearns Goodwin (Simon & Shuster, 2005). Sub-titled, The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln, it tells how the 16th president appointed to his cabinet William H. Seward, Salmon P. Chase, and Edward Bates, all of whom had been bitter rivals of Lincoln’s as they sought the Republican Party’s nomination for the presidency.
After the election, Mr. Obama followed the example of the predecessor. He appointed to his cabinet his nomination-seeking rival, Hillary Clinton, and a Bush-appointed member, Robert M. Gates, to serve in the most prestigious and visible positions: secretaries of state and defense. Other appointments followed, each one toting a full résumé of experience and a long list of staked-out convictions.
This will not be a FOB (friends of Bill) or FOD (friends of Dad) cabinet. Just as Lincoln’s group was, in a word, raucous, so too this one will produce lots of noise and much heat. Hopefully, the new president will be able to direct such energy to produce a lot of light, too.
Such a hope drove this writer when putting together GodViews: The Convictions that Drive Us and Divide Us (Geneva Press, 2001). Having poured heart and soul into promoting policy positions that put me into the crosshairs of many in the denomination, I had also come to recognize the depth of faith and validity of convictions of many of my rivals. I continued to press my convictions, but I also determined to listen for hints of insight, echoes of Biblical principles, and the ring of truth in the witness they were proclaiming.
It took some persuading for me to see that such a variety of viewpoints ought to be embraced in the way the Apostle Paul urged the embrace of varying spiritual gifts and such social categories as Jew or Greek, slave or free, male and female. But the more I observed the variety of ways that folks of varying convictional emphases – starting with the four gospel writers, and carried through the different congregations that received the letters of the apostles — the more I realized that appropriation of such variations of the Christian theme is intrinsic to being the body of Christ. And the more I could see that the separatists — Christians unwilling to associate with other Christians — have developed spiritual malnutrition by ingesting a limited theological diet.
In experience, the more I associated with such folks, the more I came to see how very much I could learn from them, and more importantly, how much the whole church can benefit from the raucous discussions such varying convictions were generating.
We are a team of rivals. We’re no president, so the choice of putting us together came not from us but from the Sovereign Lord who sent the Holy Spirit to regenerate us and adopt us into this family of rivals (ever heard of “sibling rivalry”?). But this Christian hopes that we can learn all over again — in this new year and during this new presidency — to be the family God designed us to be.