Rabbi’s Weekly Message

Rabbi’s Message, Feb 15, 2024

HAPPY DOUBLE BIRTHDAY, TO TWO MEN OF RENOWN


Illustration: Iconic photographs of (Left) Abraham Lincoln; (Right) Charles Darwin.

 

            In this era of Presidents’ birthdays being bent to wrap around a three-day weekend, I am not sure how many younger Americans know that Abraham Lincoln’s birthday was Feb. 12.  But I am fairly sure that fewer still know that he shared that birthday with Charles Darwin. 
            Moreover, it is not merely the same month and day.  The two men were born in the same year, 1809.
            A happy coincidence…. For me, though, I see a thread connecting the two men beyond the accident of when their respective mothers delivered them. This thread is a moral core to the two men.
            Lincoln was a man of his day, and therefore, not as progressive in matters of racial equity as some of his latter-day critics would have wished him to have been.  Darwin, too, was a child of his age, and failed to emancipate himself from certain prejudices concerning the alleged higher intelligence of one ethnic group versus another.
            But the more important fact is that each man ultimately stood on the morally correct side of a major issue of the day. Each demonstrated a faith that all of humanity is ultimately a family: a family spanning the various groups that people of that day—and many later days-- called “races.”
            Although in his younger days, Lincoln was not keen on organized religion, he grew more theologically engaged in the course of enduring the searing experiences of personal and national loss during the Civil War years. He entertained a steady stream of Protestant Evangelical leaders at the White House during his 1864 campaign for reelection, much to the annoyance of his military chief of staff, General Halleck, who groused that it took him away from problems that better deserved his time and thought. But if his Second Inaugural Address is any guide, his engagement with leaders of the Northern churches dovetailed with deep personal meditation on God, humans, and the seemingly interminable road to be traversed before victory could be claimed over the enslaving secessionists. 
            Lincoln’s theological turn was bound up with his changing understanding of the fundamental issue of the Civil War. Increasingly, he accepted that the war was not about the preservation of the Union alone, but about slavery. And after his reelection, in January 1865, he threw his full effort into securing the passage of the 13th Amendment, legally abolishing slavery. 
            In his Second Inaugural Address, delivered March 4, 1865, he framed the war in terms of his religious thinking about God’s Providential oversight of human affairs. In keeping with a commonplace of the theology of his day (and, indeed, of many generations), he proclaimed that God’s purposes were mysterious, and yet, ultimately, beyond criticism. He speculated that the heavy cost, human and financial, of the war, might reflect God’s judgment upon the sinners, both North and South, some of whom had practiced the cruelty, but all of whom had benefited from it:
          … if God wills that it [the war] continue, until all the wealth piled up
          by the bond-man’s two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall
          be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash, shall be paid
          for by another drawn with the sword, as was said three thousand years
          ago, so still it must be said, “the judgments of the LORD are true and
          righteous altogether.”
These words are not only a masterpiece of presidential oratory scarcely equaled in the century and two thirds since Lincoln spoke them.  They are also a religious meditation proclaiming the deep if unconventional piety of the president—a piety anchored in a moral sensibility. In this address, Lincoln turned preacher, exhorting the nation to recognize that the main event of their history was in fact a conflict of moral significance. Lincoln urged Americans to recognize that all humans are equal in God’s sight, and therefore, no one group of them may enslave another.
            For his part, Darwin was not at all the soul-less scientist that latter-day Fundamentalists charge and some atheist biologists today celebrate. His basic work on understanding the origins of species in general and humanity in particular are now known to have been in harmony with Darwin’s lifelong moral stance of opposition to the slave trade and to the institution of slavery.  Indeed, the Darwin and Wedgewood families—the two sides of Darwin’s own family tree—were among the most prominent leaders in England’s abolitionist movement of the early 19th century. Darwin grew up in a household steeped in the moral passion for the restoration of human dignity to all humans. His scientific work, we now know, provided the intellectual apparatus to buttress his moral assertion that humans are all one family.
            Darwin’s conclusion is all the more striking when we recollect that in his day, it was mostly religious conservatives who insisted that humans were all descended from Adam and Eve, while the near-consensus of scientific thought held that the different so-called “races” arose from different precursors. In the language of that day, “monogenesis” meaning one common origin of humankind, was a church teaching, whereas “polygenesis”, meaning varied origins of the different groups of humankind, was the thinking of leading biologists such as Louis Aggasiz.
            Today, as we know, polygenesis is the province of white supremacists, not of serious scientists.  Darwin’s view has become the scientific consensus. The last holdouts for the idea that the major groups of humanity evolved separately are now a shrinking minority. The improved understanding of genetics coming from studies of mitochondrial DNA now have placed on a strong scientific basis the thought that all human groups alive today descend from common ancestors living in Africa some 150,000 to 200,000 years go.
            In his day, though, Darwin’s insistence that humans are truly a family put him at odds with those who were his closest peers, the champions of scientific inquiry unfettered by church dogma.   We do not need to attempt to psychoanalyze Darwin to recognize that his moral passion was a source of energy for his research.
            Happy birthday, Abe and Charles. Here is my birthday wish: today, our world is again witnessing normalized racism, with bigotry invading the political mainstream, and with populism and autocracy rising in tandem. In this world, may your shared – if unconventional—sense of the importance of morality in modern life be honored more widely.  Amen.