Lincoln's lesson for today's culture wars

Democracy must be more than two wolves and a lamb voting on what's for lunch.

The troubled economy, soaring healthcare costs, the Iraq war – these may be the issues we're hearing the most about in this election year.

But anyone who's decided that this means the culture wars are over could not be more wrong. Abortion and gay marriage, for example, still pack a terrible punch as issues. And even though Americans might prefer these questions were out of the way, it's wishful political thinking to imagine that the demands of religion, morality, and culture can be dismissed just with a comment about being beyond a candidate's pay grade.

What lies behind the insistence on injecting morality into politics – and what lies behind the resistance to it – is a battle between two basic concepts of democracy itself: between democracy as process and democracy as purpose. This conflict is hardly an aberration of the 1990s or the Religious Right. It's a battle that was spectacularly played out 150 years ago in the great debates between Abraham Lincoln and Stephen A. Douglas.

Then, as now, politicians preferred their problems to come with neutral, dollars-and-cents solutions. In 1858, slavery was legal in 15 states, and slaveholders were demanding slavery's legalization in the Western territories as well. These demands had paralyzed Congress and triggered bloodshed in the Kansas Territory.

As the senior US senator from Illinois and chair of the Senate Committee on Territories, Douglas's solution was simply to let the people who lived there decide for themselves. He called this "popular sovereignty," and it bothered him not at all that some people (in this case, white settlers) had the authority to decide whether other people (in this case, black slaves) should be held in a lifetime of forced labor.

"If Kansas wants a slave-State constitution she has a right to it," Douglas announced on the floor of the Senate. "I do not care whether it is voted down or voted up." Law, for Douglas, was mere traffic regulations: so long as the proper procedures were observed, what people thought was right or wrong was irrelevant.

Abraham Lincoln believed as devoutly as Douglas in democracy. "The sacred right of self-government, rightly understood, no one appreciated more than [me]," Lincoln said before the debates. "But it has no just application" to the question of slavery.

Enslaving another human being was a denial of one of the primary natural rights – the right to liberty – with which everyone, according to Thomas Jefferson and the Declaration of Independence, had been "endowed by their Creator." For that reason, "there can be no moral right in connection with one man's making a slave of another" – and no moral right in allowing a majority of white people to vote black people into slavery.

But questions about moral right were exactly what Douglas believed had to be avoided in American public life. Once morality became mixed up with politics, then people began looking for firearms.

The genius of American democracy, Douglas insisted, lay in its commitment to process. Let the process of "popular sovereignty" dictate the outcome of political debate, and people will be able to live in peace with each other, surrounded by prosperity and satisfaction. For Douglas, then, the problem with the slavery controversy was that it was a controversy. The sooner majority rule was allowed to settle it, the better.

But Lincoln responded that majority rule will never actually "settle" a question that disturbs the moral balance of the universe. "Is it not false statesmanship," asked Lincoln in the last of the debates, " build up a system of policy upon the basis of caring nothing about the very thing that every body does care the most about?"

A democracy without a sense of the sacredness of those rights was like a tornado, hollow at the core and purposeless in direction. "[T]he real issue," in the slavery controversy, Lincoln said, was "the eternal struggle between these two principles – right and wrong – throughout the world," and anyone who ignored the "real issue" in the name of secularism and choice was eroding the moral capital on which democracy relies.

Our reverence for what Lincoln achieved keeps us from seeing that it is not his, but Douglas's attitudes that have come to rule modern American politics.

We deify democratic choice, and then try to restrain choice's excesses by rules and guidelines rather than by right and honor. For example, we smear violence and sex on television and then write behavioral codes to prevent harassment.

We imagine that glorifying process is the safest resort, so we stare at genocide and refer it for discussion by the United Nations Security Council. And we conflate rights and privileges to the point where the right to life becomes a "choice" but a national healthcare system becomes a virtuous necessity.

To a certain extent, we (and Douglas) may be perfectly reasonable in making process what we live by. After all, Lincoln's implacable insistence on treating slavery as a question of right and wrong really did help bring on civil war.

Suppose we set up a moral test for public policy. Whose moral test should we use? Much as our righteous souls may be vexed by porn shops and abortion clinics, we can always retreat within our own private castles and repeat Thomas Jefferson's soothing explanation that "it does me no injury for my neighbor to say there are twenty gods, or no God. It neither picks my pocket nor breaks my leg."

Or can we? Civil wars and culture wars are not the only threat to the survival of a democracy. When democracies define themselves purely by process rather than principle, they lose all passion for solidarity and all interest in the self-restraint and self-sacrifice that serve as the precondition for self-government.

Democracy shuns moral absolutism; but it does not shun all absolutes. Which is why, 150 years ago, Abraham Lincoln didn't shun them either.

Allen C. Guelzo is the Henry R. Luce Professor of the Civil War Era at Gettysburg College and the author of "Lincoln and Douglas: The Debates That Defined America."

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