Friday, September 12, 2008

Sarah Palin, Abraham Lincoln, and a Task from God

On the seventh anniversary of the September 11 attacks by Islamic terrorists on the World Trade Center and Pentagon, ABC’s Charlie Gibson sat down to interview Sarah Palin at her residence in Wasilla, Alaska.

While Gibson’s questions were tough and fair in general, they were far tougher than any questions previously posed to either Barack Obama or his running mate Joe Biden. Gibson’s demeanor, however, was a bit snarly and condescending, and he seemed to be focused on the “gotcha” style of journalism. Palin performed well, though her response to Gibson’s “gotcha” question on her view of the Bush Doctrine—that America had the right to pre-emptively strike terrorists who we reasonably expected were preparing to attack us—gave critics what they thought might be an opening.

But these critics missed the main point of the interview, the brilliant coup-de-grace delivered by Palin, in which she clearly laid out the moral basis for America’s War on Terror. Citing Abraham Lincoln’s words, continuing a line of reasoning first set forward publicly by emergent liberal Christian leader Jim Wallis in his book God’s Politics, Palin made a compelling case for the rectitude of America’s cause.

GIBSON: You said recently in your old church, “Our national leaders are sending U.S. soldiers on a task that is from God.”
PALIN: Pray for our military men and women who are striving to do what is right, also for this country, that our leaders, our national leaders are sending them out on a task that is from God.

GIBSON: Are we fighting a Holy War?
PALIN: That’s a repeat of Abraham Lincoln’s words, when he said, first he suggested, never presume to know what God’s will is, and I would never presume to know God’s will or to speak god’s words, but what Abraham Lincoln had said, and that’s a repeat in my comments, was, let us not pray that God is on our side, in a war, or any other time. But let us pray that we are on God’s side. That’s what that comment was all about, Charlie.
Today is the day that I send my first born, my son, my teenage son, oversees with his Stryker brigade. Four thousand other wonderful American men and women to fight for our country, to fight for our freedoms.
GIBSON: But you went on and said, “There is a plan, and it is God’s plan.”

PALIN: I believe that there is a plan for this world, and that plan, for this world, is for good. I believe that there is great hope and great potential for every country, to be able to live and be protected within inalienable rights, that I believe are God-given, Charlie. And I believe those are the rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.
That in my worldview is the grand plan.
GIBSON: Then, are you sending your son on a task from God?
PALIN: I don’t know if the task is from God, Charlie. What I know is that my son has made a decision. I am so proud of his independent and strong decision. What he decided to do, in serving for the right reasons in serving something greater than self, and not choosing a real easy path, where he could be more comfortable and certainly safer.

As Beliefnet’s Steven Waterman points out, Gibson did not have the exact quote, nor did he have it in the proper context.

In his quesitons about God and war, ABC News's Charles Gibson took Sarah Palin's quote out of context and then claimed it was an exact quote.
Here's how he phrased it:

GIBSON: You said recently, in your old church, "Our national leaders are sending U.S. soldiers on a task that is from God." Are we fighting a holy war?
PALIN: You know, I don't know if that was my exact quote.
GIBSON: Exact words.
Well, no. Palin asked members of the church to pray "that our leaders, our national leaders, are sending [U.S. soldiers] out on a task that is from God. That's what we have to make sure that we're praying for, that there is a plan and that that plan is God's plan." That's very different. She's asking them to help insure that the war is part of God's plan, not declaring that it was.

Palin, in her response, powerfully articulated the moral basis for the War on Terror, and she did so using a reference to Abraham Lincoln. She cited a quote that liberal Christians such as Jim Wallis of Sojourner Magazine, and secular atheists, such as Susan Jacoby have often cited. (Though I pause to note that it appears that both Wallis and Jacoby cited earlier biographies which did not appear to cite the original source, which I describe below.)

The relevant Lincoln quote comes from F.B. Carpenter, the artist who painted Lincoln’s portrait in the White House over a six month period in 1864. Carpenter’s 1867 book, Six Months in the White House, contains his recollections of events he saw and heard at the White House during that time.

Here’s what Carpenter recalled Lincoln as saying in 1864:

No nobler reply ever fell from the lips of ruler, than that uttered by President Lincoln in response to the clergyman who ventured to say, in his presence, that he hoped " the LORD was on our side.". "I am not at all concerned about that," replied Mr. Lincoln, " for I know that the LORD is always on the side of the right. But it is my constant anxiety and prayer that I and this nation should be on the LORD'S side."

Though Gibson’s intent may have been to make Palin appear as an out of control right wing Christian zealot waging an irrational holy war, her measured response demonstrated not only a personal humility in discerning God’s will, it also showed a keen appreciation for American history and the Constitutional context in which the current War on Terror is being waged. That she did so using a Lincoln quote that prominent scholars of the left admire shows she is more than ready for the challenge of the Vice-Presidency.

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