Spielberg’s Lincoln: Politics as Mathematics | Christopher S. Morrissey | Catholic World Report
Daniel Day-Lewis’ strong performance isn’t enough to save the philosophically deficient Lincoln.
The reason why Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln is such a disappointment may perhaps be evident to those who have studied philosophy. For example, Trinity Western University professor Grant Havers, in his book Lincoln and the Politics of Christian Love, offers a philosophical counterpoint to the vision of history found in Spielberg’s movie.
Havers argues against those who “contend that Christianity is too exclusivist to live up to the truly universal ideas of Lincoln.” Such people “portray Lincoln as the paragon defender of natural rights while downplaying the religious particularity of his own thought.” (1)
On the contrary, argues Havers, “Lincoln’s ideas are most comprehensible to a people already steeped in knowledge of the Bible. Lincoln honestly believed that the people of North and South were capable of understanding the injustice of slavery, although such an understanding rested on the Bible rather than mathematical reason. Even as the President of a divided nation, Lincoln assumed that the people of the South were good, and would eventually overthrow their usurping regime on their own; unfortunately, this did not happen,” and Christian statesmanship was required. (2)
The debate over Lincoln is important. On the one side, there are those who maintain “Christianity is far too restrictive to be the foundation of a true universal politics.” Because “self-evident truths cannot be exclusively Christian,” it would seem that only self-evident truths, not Christian charity, should be at the basis of a just society. (3)
On the other side, there is Havers’ insistent counterpoint. His key thesis is that Lincoln “called for a politics of charity.” He points out that although “the very language of ‘self-evident’ truths of liberty and equality in the Declaration [of Independence]” seems to “suggest that acceptance of this kind of truth should be immediately intelligible to all, Christian or non-Christian,” this was definitely not Lincoln’s view and cannot explain Lincoln’s actions. (4)
Havers argues that Lincoln instead “called for a politics of charity precisely because the truths of the Declaration were not self-evident to all.” Even if human reason is a universal fact rooted in human nature, “it would not be enough to encourage the practice of self-evident truths.” (5)
The Spielberg movie gets this philosophical point completely backwards. Instead, screenwriter Tony Kushner portrays Lincoln’s pursuit of the Thirteenth Amendment as flowing, not from Christian charity, but from mathematical reasoning analogous to the abstractions Lincoln read about in Euclid’s Elements.