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Better angels, honest selves

[ by Charles Cameron — two phrases, two anthropologies, two ways of virtue — Lincoln & Trump ]

SPEC DQ Lincoln Sharlet Trump


Jeff Sharlet is one of our finer writers about religion, and his piece on Donald Trump in Saturday’s NYT Magazine is worth your attention.

Here, I simply want to contrast Lincoln‘s “better angels of our nature” with Sharlet‘s “lust, the envy, the anger of our more honest selves” — idealism and realism? sanctity and authenticity? — as phrases representing two approaches to human nature, each clearly enunciating a virtue in its own context.


  • Abraham Lincoln, First Inaugural Address
  • Jeff Sharlet, Donald Trump, American Preacher
  • 5 Responses to “Better angels, honest selves”

    1. Graham Says:

      I know nothing of Sharlet, but as a seemingly de haut en bas comment from the liberal perspective, that cited passage demonstrates pretty hard core lack of self awareness on the liberal side. The quasi-religious sentiment of selected Trump supporters, including the embodiment of vague hopes, dreams, identity and even anger and resentment into an admittedly downmarket messiah candidate differs in neither kind nor degree from the way Obama was sold in 2008.
      I’m not immediately aware of any major party candidate before him of whom the same could be said. Plenty of tribal identity candidates, some candidates given an unrealistically idealized gloss, some characterized as the men called forth by a particular hour, but never any given quite the degree of all-encompassing significance supporters gave Obama or, perhaps, Trump.

    2. Charles Cameron Says:

      Thanks, Graham.
      I’m a student of messianic / millennial movements (Taiping, Waco, the Latter-day Saints, Aum Shinrikyo, some followers of the late Lubavicher Rebbe, the Islamic State, Ahmadinejad’s Iran, Y2K) and not particularly the US Presidency, though I did take brief notice of the rival interpretations of Obama as Christ or Antichrist some years back.
      Returning, if I may, to Abraham Lincoln, I was interested to find this passage in a First Things article titled Abraham Lincoln: Redeemer President:

      When Abraham Lincoln entered a nearly empty Richmond, Virginia, on April 4, 1865, black dock workers crowded around him, hailing him as a messiah. Shocked, Lincoln said, “Don’t kneel to me. That is not right. You must kneel to God only, and thank Him.”
      Despite Lincoln’s injunction, generations of Americans have come close to treating him as a messiah perhaps understandably, in a country where Christian themes have been so resonant. Here was a man who liberated people from bondage, a humble man who nevertheless implied that he was an agent of Providence, a man who carried the nation through an apocalyptic crisis and was murdered on Good Friday. His death, a Baptist minister in Connecticut declared, was “the aftertype of the tragedy which was accomplished on the first Good Friday, more than eighteen centuries ago.” Lincoln became Walt Whitman’s Redeemer President, a epithet not seriously challenged, at least in the North, until recent times.

      The key phrase here, for me, and I believe it extends also to Obama, Trump and Cruz, suggests that slippage between presidential and messianic hopes occur “perhaps understandably, in a country where Christian themes have been so resonant.”
      I mention Cruz in particular, since he has actually been anointed for a position of “kingship” within the “Seven Mountains” movement of which his father is a part. The notion of “sacred kingship” is Biblical, but its usage here still strikes an unexpected note, surely, in a nation founded as a Republic on the rejection of a tyrranical monarchy.
      Here is the prayer offered over Cruz during hus anointing (with Rand Paul):

      Father, we believe that, indeed, no weapon formed against him will prosper, and every tongue that rises up against him in judgment will be condemned – for this is the heritage of the servant of the Lord. And his righteousness is of you, Lord. Fahter, you have said that, and we believe that today. Father, we ask today that you would give him the tongue of the learned to speak that word. Father, we ask that your blessing would come upon our nation. Father, those like our senator, father, that they would receive these words.

      I’ll have more detail to give in the coming months, but at the moment I’d say that Ted Cruz is a more clearly “messianic” candidate than either Trump is or Obama was.

    3. Charles Cameron Says:

      BTW, there’s also this, from the Chicago Tribune, in a 1992 article titled Are The Voters Ready For A New George? If Not, A ‘Messiah’ Is Waiting:

      Fred Irwin Sitnick of Owings Mills, Md., is campaigning for the Democratic nomination with an extremely honorary title. His campaign name, as it appears in the FEC`s files under the M’s, is “Messiah.”
      Sitnick was unavailable for comment. His telephone number is unlisted. His campaign finance committee, of which he is treasurer, is listed as
      “Messiah for President of the U.S.”

    4. Prnamental Peasant Says:

      The Lincoln ‘myth’ was assisted by his being shot on the evening of Good Friday, April 14th. 1865, and being declared dead early in the morning of the 15th. The sermons preached that Easter in general presented Lincoln as both representative in his humble origins and exemplary in his achievement — larger, stronger wiser etc.

    5. Graham Says:

      I expect it was pretty clumsy of me to exclude Lincoln in my earlier comment, especially given so much advance warning by your original post. That and somebody did pen a song called “We are coming, Father Abraham”. It trust it will not seem a pro-Confederate sentiment if I suggest that sort of thing, and the martyrdom iconography after his death, were not signs of an entirely healthy republicanism in America.
      At least with Lincoln, I have some confidence America was in territory in which the man himself took the early elements during the war with a grain of salt, and his major political allies and collaborators were not themselves necessarily buying it, nor cultivating messianism about him for other than practical political gain. Some perhaps took a less pragmatic line after his death.
      But I grant you that he forms a mighty, if still to my mind unique, precedent for the trends of the past decade. I wouldn’t even characterize the cult of youth that surrounded Kennedy or the zeal of Reagan’s early followers as at all the same phenomenon, not that I was around for the former or a participant in the latter, of course.
      Something is changing in America, and if Lincoln offers some example I am still not sure how well he serves as a guide. I would suggest two possible considerations:
      1. The expansion of the messianic model of a candidate beyond the bounds of traditional religion. This best suits the case of Obama- the bits about him being a Lightworker seemed to come out of some sort of New Age spirituality, or an esoteric approach to Christianity at best. With Trump, I’d say it’s all over the map. He cannot really speak the Christian language, and his support base seems both within and without that part of American life. Call this one the trend toward ecumenism.
      2. The expansion of that model outside the framework of particular crisis. Not merely a great civil war or a rending crisis over race and unity in the American nation in a particular time, but now also first a candidate [Obama] who would essentially lead America while guiding the world out of every crisis to be had, including ecological ones, and then second another [Trump] who embodies a very diverse set of expectations united only by the slogan of making America great. Call this one the generalization of messianism. It seems less focused than anything about Lincoln, and that may make it at once more fragile and more ultimately dangerous.
      Perhaps it isn’t that distinct from the example of Lincoln. But it seems so to this one observer. Apologies if it seems as random observations.

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