'Lincoln's Dilemma' reveals how president's faith influenced politics, says historian
President Abraham Lincoln’s faith and his commitment to seeing humanity as created in the image of God guided him through tumultuous times, solidifying the former president as a historic figure that today’s leaders would do well to emulate, says historian David S. Reynolds.
Reynolds’ bestselling book, Abe: Abraham Lincoln in His Times, inspired the new Apple TV+ series "Lincoln's Dilemma.” The four-part docu-series features insights from historians, journalists and scholars, as well as rare archival material to give viewers an in-depth look at the life of the Great Emancipator.
In an interview with The Christian Post, Reynolds, who also serves as a professor at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York, shared that Lincoln, who was assassinated in 1865, was "much more religious than most people think" and was guided by biblical principles.
“He loved to read the Bible. He felt that God was always in control. He put 'Under God' on American coins for the first time. He referenced God in the Emancipation Proclamation. Even though he never really joined a church, he would pray. And in the second inaugural address, he said that God is against slavery.”
What defined his presidency, Reynolds said, was Lincoln’s compassion for others, stemming from his belief in Luke 6:31, also known as the Golden Rule: “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.”
“He never demonized the enemy,” the historian explained. “He never said bad things about the South, about Southerners. He said, ‘They pray as well to the Bible and to God, and we pray. We feel that we're on the side of justice; we feel that the Bible is against slavery.’ But he reached out emotionally to his so-called enemy, never called them the enemy whatsoever. But he also believed in the firmness of principle, and also the Union, the idea of one common country.”
For example, when Jefferson Davis, who served as the president of the Confederate States, asked Lincoln to “make peace between the two countries,” the latter replied, “I will happily make peace as one common country, but one common country without slavery.”
“He didn't turn off Davis. He just said, ‘As one common country,” Reynolds said, later adding: “[Lincoln] lived in a very, very divided time. It was divided over issues that we deal with today, issues of race, issues of religion, Evangelical religion, and so forth, and issues of the Right versus the Left, and all of that. It was all kind of there.”
“Lincoln’s Dilemma,” which premiered Feb. 18, is described as a “21st century examination of a complicated man and the people and events that shaped his evolving stance on slavery.” The docuseries is narrated by Jeffrey Wright and features the voices of Bill Camp as Lincoln and Leslie Odom Jr. as Frederick Douglass.
The series delves into the little-known side of the former president, including his “folksy” persona that earned him the “Honest Abe” moniker, his love for poetry and his engagement with humanity.
Reynolds, who has extensively studied the life of Lincoln, said he was always fascinated by how the noted abolitionist was able to run for office, become president and manage a country “during the most divided time in history.”
“I realized that there were qualities in him that I really wanted to probe. And what I really probe is how he responded so sympathetically to his entire culture,” he said. “He could quote Shakespeare by the page, even though he had less than one year of school … he was so curious about the world around him and also so receptive to people around him, which I think ‘Lincoln's Dilemma’ shows.”
The series also examines the struggles of enslaved people, highlighting the horrors many of them experienced. Reynolds explained that Lincoln, like many abolitionists, believed that enslaved people were not “things” or “property,” but human beings that loved and experienced grief and joy.
“The importance of a film like this is to show not just Lincoln, but also the experience of being enslaved, and the experience of fighting for your freedom as an African American soldier in the war,” Reynolds said.
“It gets down to ground level and real human emotion on the part of people who, back then, were considered just things or inferior beings. And it's very, very important for a film … to get into that emotional experience.”
Still, Reynolds pointed out that there is sometimes too much hyperbole surrounding Lincoln. For example, the historian contended, it’s easy to make him a hero and put him on a pedestal and portray him as a “white savior” — a label Lincoln himself would have disliked.
“He would be the first to say, ‘No, no, no, this was a group effort here, how much respect I have for African Americans who helped me, people like Frederick Douglass, the 180,000, African American soldiers,’ he would be the very, very first to say that. … He would not like being put up on a pedestal," Reynolds said.
Other times, people neglect Lincoln’s compassion and closeness to African Americans, accusing him of being too soft on difficult issues, the historian posited.
“My answer to that is he had to get elected to office; he had to win the votes, all kinds of voters. … He compared himself to a tightrope walker, Charles Blondin, who went back and forth across Niagara Falls, no net, forward, backward, pushing a wheelbarrow. And he said, ‘You know, I'm Charles Blondin, and sometimes have to lean to the right, sometimes I lean to the left. If I don't, the country could collapse, we could lose the border states.’ … His sense of political tact, I think, comes through very well.”
Through his book and “Lincoln’s Dilemma,” Reynolds said he hopes audiences come out with a sense of a “leader being capable of openness to the voices of various ethnicities, various religious points of view, and a leader who is truly human.”
“And as he said, ‘Malice toward none charity to all,’ even refusing to demonize your enemy. He never demonized the Confederacy … and yet, [was] a leader who sticks to the principle of justice and equal rights for everybody.”
"Lincoln's Dilemma” is now streaming on Apple TV+.
Leah M. Klett is a reporter for The Christian Post. She can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org