Today we remember Lincoln as a great redeemer – and that should give Obama hope

Time for the 44th president to prove he can be the heir to the 16th.

Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln is a spectacular movie – “less a biopic than a political thriller, a civics lesson . . . alive with moral energy”, in the words of the New York Times review. Sitting in a preview screening in Soho Square, I cried. I couldn’t help it: the story of how Lincoln pushed the Thirteenth Amendment through a divided House of Representatives in the space of just four months, thereby abolishing the institution of slavery for ever, only to be assassinated, was too moving and melodramatic for even this cynical writer to bear.

The film presents Lincoln as an eloquent and noble commander-in-chief, an intensely moral man and a champion of black America. In this sense, there is nothing new in Spielberg’s depiction of “Honest Abe”. Lincoln has long been considered the greatest ever leader of the United States; he is the Great Emancipator, Preserver of the Union, Redeemer President.

Spielberg joins a long line of Lincoln sanctifiers such as Leo Tolstoy, who breathlessly declared that “the greatness of Napoleon, Caesar or Washington is only moonlight by the sun of Lincoln”. His film is based in part on the historian Doris Kearns Goodwin’s biography (or hagiography?) Team of Rivals: the Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln.

But is the Hollywood take on Lincoln – emancipator of the slaves, assuager of America’s racist past – the whole story? In a scathing letter to the Daily Telegraph on 12 January, the LSE historian Alan Sked wrote: “Abraham Lincoln was a racist who . . . had no intention of freeing slaves who freed themselves by fleeing to Unionist lines . . . Until the day he died, Lincoln’s ideal solution to the problem of blacks was to ‘colonise’ them back to Africa or the tropics.”

Back in 1978, the late left-wing historian Howard Zinn published his bestselling People’s History of the United States, which claimed that Lincoln “set out to fight the slave states in 1861, not to end slavery, but to retain [their] enormous national territory and market and resources”. Zinn quotes Lincoln at a debate in 1858, before he became president: “I am not, nor ever have been, in favour of bringing about in any way the social and political equality of the white and black races . . . nor ever have been in favour of making voters or jurors of Negroes.” In the same year, Lincoln referred to “the superior position assigned to the white race”. (Zinn, incidentally, was building on the work of the African-American writer Lerone Bennet, who wrote a seminal article for Ebony magazine in 1968 entitled: “Was Abraham Lincoln a white supremacist?”.)

To be fair, the film makes clear that Lincoln was not an abolitionist; that role goes to the radical Pennsylvania congressman Thaddeus Stevens – played beautifully by a bombastic and bewigged Tommy Lee Jones. (Dear 20th Century Fox, please can we have a sequel to Lincoln called Thaddeus?)

Spielberg, however, glosses over Lincoln’s earlier, more odious views; the moist-eyed viewer comes away with an image of him as only a lifelong foe of racists and bigots.

So how do you square these two Lincolns, the Great Racist v the Great Emancipator? First, to hold Lincoln to the standards of the 20th or 21st centuries is absurd and unjust; indeed, the slave-turned-statesman Frederick Douglass, speaking only a decade after Lincoln’s death, conceded that the president may have “seemed tardy, cold, dull and indifferent” on abolishing slavery but, “measuring him by the sentiment of his country, a sentiment he was bound as a statesman to consult, he was swift, zealous, radical”.

Second, as the progressive Columbia University historian Eric Foner has argued, over the course of the civil war Lincoln “displayed a remarkable capacity for moral and political growth”. He may not have begun the conflict as an abolitionist but he ended it as one.

Indeed, as Lincoln wrote in April 1864, “If slavery is not wrong, nothing is wrong.” And in his last public speech, in April 1865, he called publicly for (limited) black suffrage – the first time, in Foner’s words, “an American president had endorsed any political rights for blacks”.

On the subject of “moral and political growth”, it is difficult in this, the week of Barack Obama’s inauguration, to avoid comparisons between these two presidents. Obama, like Lincoln, is a tall, skinny lawyer who served in the Illinois state legislature and ended up in the White House in part thanks to his awe-inspiring oratory. The 44th president of the United States sees himself as the heir to the 16th: Obama kicked off his first presidential campaign in 2007 in Lincoln’s home town of Springfield, Illinois, on the weekend of Lincoln’s birthday.

Last November, Obama held a screening of Lincoln at the White House and told Time: “Part of what Lincoln teaches us is that to pursue the highest ideals and a deeply moral cause requires you . . . get your hands dirty.”

The problem with Obama has been that, on a host of first-term issues, ranging from the deficit and financial reform to climate change and gun control, he didn’t merely fail to fight dirty – he didn’t put up a fight at all. Yet the president has kicked off his second term with a much more aggressive stance on gun control after the Newtown massacre, and refusing, on the economy, to be blackmailed by Republicans over the “fiscal cliff”. Obama has also nominated the arch-realist and Iran dove Chuck Hagel to be his defence secretary in the teeth of strong opposition from the pro-Israel lobby.

“We are still capable of great things, big things,” his senior adviser Valerie Jarrett told CNN on the day of the inauguration. As Lincoln showed with the Thirteenth Amendment, it takes only a matter of months to wipe the slate clean and earn a place in the pantheon of great American leaders. America – and the world – are waiting, Mr President.

Mehdi Hasan is a contributing writer to the New Statesman and political director at the Huffington Post, where this article is crossposted.

Daniel Day-Lewis as Abraham Lincoln.

Mehdi Hasan is a contributing writer for the New Statesman and the co-author of Ed: The Milibands and the Making of a Labour Leader. He was the New Statesman's senior editor (politics) from 2009-12.

This article first appeared in the 28 January 2013 issue of the New Statesman, After Chavez

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Can religion trump the climate change deniers? Meet the inter-faith environmentalists

The role of faith in fighting intolerance, protecting the planet, and trumping Trump.

"I need my brothers here with me - Canon Giles and Rabbi Natan," said Dr Husna Ahmad, motioning for the two men to join her at the pulpit. Taking their hands and raising them above her head, she continued:

“[I need them] to be my voice, to fight for my right to practice my religion, for my right to wear the hijab and to care for my sons and daughters and granddaughters - as they would care for their own”.

Why do I ask for this at an evening about climate change? she asked, her voice now shaking with emotion. “Because only when we think as one humanity can we save this planet.”

The meeting at St John’s church, Waterloo, saw Christian, Muslim and Jewish leaders come together for the first-ever "Faith for the Climate" event. Their message echoed the wider Interfaith movement's statement on climate change: that caring for the earth is our shared responsibility. 

As so often with environmental subjects, the effort felt at risk of being shadowed by the more tangible needs of the soup-kitchen operating in the dusk outside. Yet at a time of rising Islamophobia and anti-Semitism building cross-community connections and tackling prejudice matter more than ever.

Not least since the fledgling consensus on climate change is also under threat. In the US, one of the world's great polluters, the Republican candidate Donald Trump is a climate change denier. 

During last night's televised debate Hillary Clinton took the businessman to task for saying that climate change was "a hoax perpetrated by the Chinese". Trump denied the accusation: "I did not, I did not, I do not say that," he responded. Yet his tweet history suggests otherwise - revealing how a toxic mix of xenophobia and climate scepticism play their part in his wider message.

Prepped with tea and pitta bread, attendees bore witness to a talk by Sir David King - the Foreign secretary's special representative on climate change. By 2035 the world needs to be at net zero emissions, King explained.

Unbearable heat waves, extreme flooding and biblical-levels of crop-destruction wait on the other side of this deadline.

Last week’s UN conference in New York has seen over 30 new nations, including the UK, officially commit to the Paris climate treaty.  Yet against such optimism must be set the looming prospect of a Trump Presidency in America. 

Not only has Trump said he would “cancel” America’s commitment to the Paris agreement. He has also promised to end the “war on coal”, scrap the Environment Protection Agency, and appoint an oil executive to be the Interior secretary. Without America’s support for global action on climate change, the 1.5 degrees target would be impossible to reach.

So how can religion help? On a direct level, many faith-based bodies are already utilising their vast networks to help tackle the challenge.

Since 2004, Operation Noah, a UK-based Christian charity, has called on the church to divest from fossil fuels.

Sir King also described the Pope's 2015 environmental encyclical as an important part of the "crescendo" that set the stage for the successful negotiations on the global climate deal. On the back of such international progress, groups such as Christian Aid, Islamic Relief and the Big Church Switch are strengthening their interventions. Just last week, Christian Aid announced a new $53m fund to improve energy efficiency in developing countries. 

But there is perhaps also another, less direct, way that religion is helping. Christian evangelicals in the US have been more likely to be climate sceptics. Yet in inter-religious contexts, the multiplicity of interpretations can also be an invitation to a deeper interrogation - of the very way we form assumptions about the world. 

Just look at how many takes there have been on the Noah story within Christianity alone. Mike Hulme at Kings College London points to an American Christian evangelical coalition which supports fossil fuels for their ability to provide cheap energy for the poor. Others have claimed that God’s promise to Noah not to drastically alter the earth again means that the impact of climate change will be softened. In contrast, others read floods as a punishment for human sin. According to the Bishop of Carlisle, the 2007 floods were “the consequences of our moral degradation, as well as the environmental damage that we have caused.”

While it may be tempting to pack unpalatable viewpoints off in a "basket of deplorables", or wipe them out with an apocalyptic flood, the takeaway from events like last Wednesday's seems to be a message of expanded community and common ground.

For Canon Giles, simply watching members of different faiths united in prayer had transformative power. "In that moment, we were no longer a gathering of different faiths and dogmas," he said. "We were simply members of the muddled human species, pooling our hopes and prayers."

India Bourke is the New Statesman's editorial assistant.