What drives Lincoln? The Oscar Story that Spielberg missed

Lael Arrington's picture

On Sunday night’s 85th Academy Awards the national spotlight will focus on the familiar image on every copper penny—Abraham Lincoln. Nominated for 12 Oscars, Steven Spielberg’s film tells the story of the last four months of Lincoln’s life. Or does it? Yes, it chronicles the political drama (and shenanigans) of passing the 13th amendment to abolish slavery. And, true to much historical evidence, Daniel Day Lewis channels a terrific Lincoln. But how can you draw an accurate portrait of a man that leaves out the center--his journey to faith in a great and sovereign God?

When we probe our own motivations for our lives we inevitably find that our thoughts about God shape our character, our moral compass, our relationships, our career choices, and how we interpret the meaning and purpose of our lives. Yet today’s film makers and historians focus little attention on our relationship with or denial of God, even when the subject, like Lincoln, spoke at great length both publically and privately about him. This is like showing us a great love story and cutting out all the scenes that show us why the hero and heroine love each other.
When Spielberg and screen writer Tony Kushner attempt to show us in the course of the movie us why Lincoln is so passionate about the abolition of slavery we get a lesson in geometry:
“Euclid’s first common notion is this: ‘Things which are equal to the same thing are equal to each other.’ That’s a rule of mathematical reasoning. It’s true because it works. Has done and always will do. In his book, Euclid says this is ‘self-evident.’ You see, there it is, even in that 2,000-year-old book of mechanical law. It is a self-evident truth that things which are equal to the same thing are equal to each other.”
The logical inference from the Declaration of Independence would be, “’All men are created equal.’ A white slave owner is a man. A slave is a man. Therefore a white slave owner is equal to a black slave.”
This is where Spielberg and Kushner suppress the truth of what Lincoln actually said: “One would start with confidence that he could convince any sane child that the simpler propositions of Euclid are true; but, nevertheless, he would fail, utterly, with one who should deny the definitions and axioms. The principles of Jefferson are the definitions and axioms of free society. And yet they are denied, and evaded, with no small show of success. One dashingly calls them ‘glittering generalities’; another bluntly calls them ‘self-evident lies’; and still others insidiously argue that they apply only ‘to superior races.’”
Lincoln understood that neither mathematical nor philosophical “self-evident” principles reach into the well-spring of our desires. He understood that God is good. God is love. And we are called to live by the law of love (charity). But we don’t. Not because we don’t know better. We read our Bibles. But our hearts distort the law of love we find there. Our problem is our offense against God (sin). And this great war is divine punishment. This is the message of his sermonic Second Inaugural Address with which the movie concludes (text below). Lincoln doesn’t call for repentance right there on the capitol steps, but he does call for us to move forward with love in binding up the nation’s wounds.

So many of our great biographies and historical movies leave out the larger story. I count David McCullough’s John Adams as one of the best bios I’ve ever read. Yet there is no focus on his spiritual journey or how that impacted his life. True for Theodore Rex and many others as well. Even sadder, I grieve that events of great historical impact are ignored entirely by film makers because they have a spiritual or politically conservative theme. Surely one of the greatest events of our time was the fall of communism and the Berlin Wall. But where are the great movies about these events? On second thought, what A-list director wants to film a movie where the Polish Catholic church, Romanian pastors and Ronald Reagan are the heroes?
Our stories are being lost, rewritten, squeezed into a secular, truth supressing mold--all with the willing compliance of respected academics. Spielberg based Lincoln on presidential biographer Doris Goodwin Kearns' Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln. When asked if she knew of any error in Kushner's scripts Goodwin replied there's "nothing in the script that I didn't think was plausible." Sigh.
Which is why I'm so grateful for the work of Christians like Eric Metaxas, who wrote Bonhoffer and Seven Men and the Secret of their Greatness, and Mark Joseph who is producing a new movie on Reagan. There is a new bio out about Lincoln that Thomas Nelson has published, Lincoln's Battle with God by Stephen Mansfield. That is the story about Lincoln I look forward to reading.
PS. Lincoln rebelled early on against the Calvinistic beliefs of his father, but was drawn to the Bible reading and spiritual reflection of his mother. He grew up a skeptic but his own struggles with depression and the great tragedies of the nation and his own life prompted a great spiritual pilgrimage. More next time…
Second Inaugural Address
“…Both read the same Bible and pray to the same God, and each invokes His aid against the other. It may seem strange that any men should dare to ask a just God's assistance in wringing their bread from the sweat of other men's faces, but let us judge not, that we be not judged. The prayers of both could not be answered. That of neither has been answered fully. The Almighty has His own purposes.
"Woe unto the world because of offenses; for it must needs be that offenses come, but woe to that man by whom the offense cometh." If we shall suppose that American slavery is one of those offenses which, in the providence of God, must needs come, but which, having continued through His appointed time, He now wills to remove, and that He gives to both North and South this terrible war as the woe due to those by whom the offense came, shall we discern therein any departure from those divine attributes which the believers in a living God always ascribe to Him?
“Fondly do we hope, fervently do we pray, that this mighty scourge of war may speedily pass away. Yet, if God wills that it continue until all the wealth piled by the bondsman'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 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."

“With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation's wounds, to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan, to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations.


Your commentary on Spielberg's Lincoln is right on. Slowly but steadily, history is being replaced with something else, something tainted by the biases of writers, producers, and directors who are not so concerned with truth as much as they are with suppressing worldviews they oppose. It's not like we don't have enough words spoken and written by these great historical figures. In most cases, we know exactly what they believed, but instead we are fed what someone else wants us to believe.
I fear my great grandchildren will never know what actually took place in the first 200 years of our nation's history, thus they will never understand why these events took place. They won't be able to learn from the past and, therefore, will be prone to repeating past mistakes and making even greater ones in the future.

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