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Commentary: Lincoln looked toward a new birth of freedom under God
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Read the full text of the Gettysburg Address.

Gather together a few friends today, friends who love words and freedom and American history, and revisit a high peak in our long struggle to move closer to the ideals of the Declaration: The dedication of the Soldier’s National Cemetery at Gettysburg on Nov. 19, 1863, 149 years ago Monday.

Read President Abraham Lincoln’s address, recite it, listen to its poetry, to Lincoln’s explanation of the war’s purpose: preserving government of, by and for the people. Ponder his use of “... under God” in “... this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom.”

Ponder it, that is, if those words appear in the version you read. Likely they do. Most copies do, but many don’t. The different versions flow from a dispute about whether Lincoln actually said “under God.”

The words were not in two early drafts. But the president kept polishing his remarks, and at Gettysburg adlibbed at several points. Four newspaper “copyists” produced slightly differing versions in what they telegraphed to their editors, but all contained “under God.”

Later, Lincoln wrote a final draft that included “under God.” This was the only copy he signed and designated: “Address delivered at the dedication of the Cemetery at Gettysburg.” This version is the most widely used, and graces an inner wall at the Lincoln Memorial.

The evidence strongly indicates that he spoke the words.

Dr. John R. Sellers, the Library of Congress’ curator of all things Lincoln, says Lincoln clearly departed from his reading copy.

Garry Wills, journalist, historian and author who won a Pulitzer for his book, “Lincoln at Gettysburg: The Words That Remade America,” says the newspaper dispatches confirm that Lincoln said “under God.”
The editors of “The Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln” agree.

Among organizations that refuse to accept this evidence is The American Constitution Society for Law and Policy, which tilts heavily to the left. It prefers an early draft that does not include the words.

I will not here question the motives of those who are so inclined. Undoubtedly, some seek the truth. As for others, a cynic might see ideology at work, a rewriting of history, yet another piece in the continuing effort to expunge “God” from the public square.

But God has always been a part of our public debates -- often on both sides -- from the Founding, to slavery, segregation, wars, poverty and hunger, civil rights, equality and crafting budgets, including the current one.

And in light of this experience, and on this day when we recall Gettysburg, it is fitting to look at another of Lincoln’s great speeches: The Second Inaugural. Here Lincoln, a leader who never took words and ideas lightly, gave us a subtle and complex view of God and hard truths about man and slavery and the war. He drew thoughtfully on Jewish and Christian scripture:

“Let us judge not that we be not judged.”

“The Almighty has His own purposes. ‘Woe unto the world because of offenses ... woe to that man by whom the offense cometh.”

“The judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether.”

The closing of the second inaugural begins: “With malice toward none; with charity for all, with firmness in the right, as God gives us to see the right ...”
Lincoln called on God in hundreds of speeches and letters and documents, including his targeted Emancipation Proclamation. (None of this is to claim that Lincoln was a Christian; it is rather to make clear that he routinely called on God and scripture.)

In our time, many Americans are critical of this practice, believing it violates the First Amendment. They would push religion out of the public square.

They have an enthusiastic and powerful ally in government, which continues to attack freedom of religion on many fronts: conscience for individuals and the ability of various faiths and denominations to abide by their beliefs in operating their own hospitals, schools and universities, adoption agencies and missions that serve the poor.

America’s long experience says it is not religion crossing any First Amendment line in these cases; it is the government. Religion’s First Amendment protections do not rely on the religion clauses alone, but also on the protections for speech and press and assembly.

If the government tramples freedom of religion, it will trample the others. The trampling has begun.

As Lincoln resolved at Gettysburg that the nation might have a new birth of freedom, concerned Americans should today pursue a rebirth of old freedoms, those of the First Amendment.

Tack Cornelius is a writer who lives in Gainesville and attends a local Baptist church.

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