I first got to know Duncan Newcomer when he told me about the time he had a front-row seat to history.
It was Martin Luther King Jr. Day, and I’d written a column about King’s fight to end poverty. At the center of that column were the ideas in King’s speech at Riverside Church in New York. What the “I Have a Dream” speech was to racial equality, the Riverside speech was to poverty. It was a seminal moment in King’s life, and Duncan was there.
Last week, for our Thanksgiving issue, I talked about how amazing Monitor readers are. Every so often, in this space, I’m going to show you. I want to acquaint you with members of the Monitor family and with thinkers who are wrestling with issues close to the Monitor’s heart, from progress to pathbreaking thinking to our common humanity.
There are many reasons to start with Duncan, from his civil rights past to his present work with Better Angels and the Idea of America Network – groups committed to a renaissance of civility, goodwill, and unity in American discourse. But what most caught my attention was his new book, “30 Days with Abraham Lincoln: Quiet Fire.” The book is like chicken soup for the soul, drawing on Abraham Lincoln’s character and courage for its wisdom. But ultimately, what emerges is a portrait of what made Lincoln extraordinary. In a word: reconciliation.
This was not just his desire to reconcile a fractured nation – or about how a man who waged a brutal war never had the taint of rage in his heart. It was about Lincoln’s ability to reconcile the seemingly irreconcilable.
The best America, Duncan notes, seeks to find harmony in its contradictions: commonwealth versus private wealth, unity versus diversity, equality versus freedom. The tendency can be to weaponize these contradictions – to get people to take a side.
But Lincoln’s conviction was that America brought these contradictions together in a mystical, divine way – that their balance was a living, breathing thing bound and guided by the moral virtues of the nation’s founding.
“He was able to attach one steel-strong cable to a fixed point and to move and attach the other end to different posts at different times,” Duncan says.
The largeness of Lincoln’s faith and vision made reconciliation an imperative, the very lifeblood of his nation’s exceptionalism. The world needed America to survive – and to survive together.
There’s much more to our conversation. To read more, please read the Q&A below. But what I see in Duncan is what I see in so many of you – a community of workers, faithfully endeavoring to uplift and enrich the world.
“The Monitor feels like the church world I knew as a kid,” says Duncan, an ordained United Church of Christ minister, “with a point of view that appeals to social justice, love, mercy, progress and supporters of global ‘missionary’ workers who do that.”
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My sprawling interview with Duncan spread over several emails and a 30-minute phone conversation. I enjoyed it so much that I thought I would share some of the highlights here. This is not the entire conversation, just selected bits and pieces.
In addition to writing “30 Days with Abraham Lincoln: Quiet Fire,” Duncan has been a teacher of philosophy and religion at the Loomis Chaffee School and of behavioral science at the University of Connecticut Medical School, a private practice psychotherapist to individuals and families, and an ordained preacher in the United Church of Christ.
Where did your interest with Lincoln come from?
My father was a Pennsylvania Yankee from near Gettysburg and my mother a southern lady from the deep South. We had a potentially divided house. Lincoln was an icon by which I chose my moral compass and my unity. Then the movie, when I was 14, “Raintree County” pictured Lincoln’s funeral train as a symbol of national unity over racial divides. It deeply moved me. As I was later to learn from Walt Whitman, Lincoln was “our first Martyr Chief,” and from such shared tragedy can come our deep union. I later lived in a real Raintree County in Indiana, New Harmony, 50 miles from Lincoln’s boyhood home.
Say a little more about the origin of “Quiet Fire.”
“Quiet Fire” is the name of a local Maine community radio feature on WERU and the title of my major manuscript on the spiritual life of Lincoln. My master’s thesis was on the language of Lincoln as political and poetic expression. He made a new world with his words. As a preacher and a poet that is what I have always wanted to do. ... Lincoln is a secular and a sacred source for that and we live in a time when the values of the sacred are being re-translated into what we think of as secular. The torch flame in the lantern of the Statue of Liberty is a fire lit from Moses’ Burning Bush vision of freedom from slavery. That is a quiet fire that burned within Lincoln and can yet enlighten and lead us down to the latest generation. That is my worldview.
You talk about Lincoln bestriding two worlds and having a fierce but somewhat unorthodox faith. Say more about what you've learned about Lincoln and his own spiritual journey?
Julia Ward Howe thought that this was an aspect of Lincoln’s leadership that she called “feminine.” He was able to attach one steel-strong cable to a fixed point and to move and attach the other end to different posts at different times. It was a symbol of strength and flexibility to her and she saw that as a feminine quality that did not exist in most of the 19th century men she knew. So the paradoxes of Lincoln are huge and valuable. Masculine-feminine being one. Secular and religious being another. Ugly and beautiful. Rollickingly funny and sorrowfully melancholy. And on and on. A unified man. His ability to wage and win a war without becoming hateful is crucial. Judgment and mercy are twins in his soul.
To what did Lincoln hold fast as he cabled his steel strength to various actions and values?
Lincoln most consistently of all wanted to be good. Of his ambitions in life he announced at age 23, “I have no other so great as that of being truly esteemed of my fellow men, by rendering myself worthy of their esteem.” He was not so much attached on one side to any one principle other than his consuming desire to Be Attached to the Other in some worthy way.
You're involved with Better Angels, which helps promote constructive conversations over polarization. What drew you to that group?
We could lose our country if we only win our point. So no matter how vivid our points of view might be, we need, as Lincoln saw, to value the worth of the minority opponent whom we hope to beat but not to kill. Lincoln, and this is my first story in my book, knew how to make enemies into friends because he wanted and needed to. We need to want and need that too, even more than the justice and truth of our cause.
When you look at the state of public dialogue and politics today, what seems the way forward?
Our values, even differently acted upon, are more real than the emotions of our media driven differences. It is demonstrable that the media drives a story-line of a national Punch and Judy Show. And we all get addicted to it. It is amazing to me that The Christian Science Monitor does not feed that monster. ... The Monitor world feels like the church world I knew as kid, with a point of view that appeals to social justice, love, mercy, and progress and supportive of global “missionary” workers who do that.