Thoughts on Our Protestant Legacy


First impressions may indicate that John Carroll's The Wreck of Western Culture: Humanism Revisited and Grant N. Havers's Lincoln and the Politics of Christian Love are clean different books. While Carroll is critically addressing the role of humanistic thinking in the moral self-destruction of the West, Havers is highlighting the theological foundations of the rhetoric of Abraham Lincoln. Moreover, the moral direction of the two works would seem to differ. Carroll is tracing the evolution of what he takes to be a hubristic belief, namely, that man can control his fate through his own mind and through the exercise of his will. His critical survey starts with the Italian Renaissance, and its cult of the resourceful individual, and ends with the evocation of postmodernist chaos.

Havers, by contrast, is celebrating the distinctly Protestant biblical elements that he uncovers in Lincoln's oratory, and particularly in Lincoln's tropes about the inhumanity of slavery and about Americans as an "almost chosen people." Carroll's work would seem to point in a starkly antihumanistic direction, one in which, to quote Martin Luther as Carroll often does, "faith exists where there is neither light nor Reason." It is a far gloomier tract than Havers's celebration of Lincoln as a critic of slavery and as a champion of human freedom. Unlike Carroll, Havers is talking about the religious achievement of abolishing slavery. In making his arguments, he would seem to be covering some of the same ground as did such Lincoln devotees as Harry Jaffa, Gary Wills, and George McGovern. All these interpreters have presented Lincoln as someone who reconstructed American identity around the principle of equality.

Requires Subscription PDF