Saturday, March 04, 2006

On Reading 'Team of Rivals': The Dangers of Sanctimony

I read at a glacial place even under the best of circumstances. But recent demands on my time mean that for several months now, I've been working my way through Team of Rivals, Doris Kearns Goodwin's group biography of Abraham Lincoln and the people who surrounded him in his Cabinet.

Some of the less complimentary critics are right when they say that Goodwin doesn't cover any new ground here and doesn't advance some revolutionary thesis. But having read many biographies of Lincoln--including those by Sandburg, Lorant, Oates, and Donald--there is one thing to be said for Goodwin's portrait of Lincoln: No one has done a better job of giving us a sense of the sixteenth President as a person. Donald's biography is the best one out there still, I think, but Goodwin's Lincoln is supremely accessible. You can see him and hear him as though he were in the room with you.

And the close-up is flattering. Goodwin doesn't focus our gaze on an icon, but on a real, imperfect human being. Nonetheless, we see that Lincoln was, no matter what misgivings others may have had about this successful backwoods lawyer with no executive experience when he came to office, the ablest, wiliest, most honest, and most tactful of the Republicans who vied for the party's 1860 presidential nomination. (All of whom he invited to be part of his administration.)

Before reading Goodwin's book, I hadn't known much about the men in Lincoln's Cabinet. New York's William Seward, to me, is the most extraordinary of the lot, a cigar-chomping proto-Al Smith who one might have expected to have adopted an attitude of bitterness toward Lincoln as Smith would take up seventy years later toward Franklin Roosevelt. Instead, Seward and Lincoln became great friends, bound together by a commitment to the country, common sense, and good humor.

The person I come away from Goodwin's book disliking--a sentiment she obviously shares--is Salmon P. Chase, the one-time Ohio governor who served as Lincoln's first secretary of the treasury.

I had been prepared to like Chase. As a young Cincinnati lawyer, he courageously fought against slavery. But the brush with early fame must have gone to his head. It infected Chase with such overwhelming ambitions for the presidency that he acted duplicitously during his political career. Although many were able to see through him, Chase lived in such denial that he seems never to have understood what a sinister character he had become, hiding the truth from himself behind a veneer of sanctimony and faux-Christian righteousness.

Of all the temptations to which Christians can fall, the most destructive may be self-righteousness and spiritual pride. Righteousness, from a Biblical perspective, isn't moral perfection. It's about having a right relationship with God. And that is a free gift God grants to all who turn from sin (repent) and trust in Christ. The bumper sticker has it exactly right: Christians aren't perfect, just forgiven.

Chase thought he was perfect and proceeded to act duplicitiously in advancing his ambitions, even encouraging a campaign for the 1864 nomination that attacked Lincoln while he served in Lincoln's Cabinet.

Yet, like another prominent hypocrite of American history--this one not of a religious, but a philosophical stripe--Thomas Jefferson, it would never have done any good to confront Chase for his hypocrisy. That's how high his walls of denial and self-delusion became.

Jesus once said that only one sin was unforgivable, the sin against the Holy Spirit. Generations of Christians have wondered what that means exactly. In a way, the sin against the Holy Spirit isn't a specific sin. It's really just the wall we erect between ourselves and our conscience when the Spirit tries to point out deficiencies in our characters and are the wrong we've done.

According to Jesus, the Spirit tries to do two very important things to us. The first is to convict us of our sin, showing us our need of a Savior. The second is to convince us that by simple confession and surrender to Christ, we can have a right relationship with God.

But because of our very human desire to "be like God," Christians can sometimes become self-righteousness, convinced of their own holiness, and unable or unwilling to pay heed when the Spirit tries, sometimes through our best friends, sometimes through our reading of the Bible, to convict and convince us.

Chase, whose career started out with such promise, appears to have built up such walls within himself. The picture of him that emerges from Kearns' book reminds me of something Irving Stone wrote of a later sanctimonious politician, William Jennings Bryan, who was nominated for President three different times by the Democrats:
To one of his political lieutenants who showed him his facts and figures which proved that his stand [on a particular issue] had been wrong, Bryan replied calmly: "I am always right."
That seems to have been Chase's attitude as well.

Lincoln, like Chase, had ambition--a friend once said that Lincoln's ambition was "the little engine that never stopped." He also had, as Kearns demonstrates, great self-confidence. And though Lincoln was no Christian, he had that greatest of all Christian virtues, which Chase apparently lacked, humility.

I'm not done reading Goodwin's extraordinary book even now. But I'm finding it not only enjoyable in itself, but enjoyable too for the lessons it teaches.


P_J said...


I've been enjoying Team of Rivals, too. I got the same impression of Chase. It's a sobering picture of how easy it is to be self-deluded.

And I think you're on the right track about the "unforgivable sin" -- it's not wanting to be forgiven. The only people Jesus can't help are ones who don't want to be helped. Here I always think of the dwarves at the end of Lewis' "The Last Battle." They weren't blind because they were bad; they were blind because they refused to see.

And the most frightening thing of all? God will let us. He will let us blind ourselves and reject him. God doesn't send people to hell; they choose it.

Matt Brown said...

Mark: I was reading this book, but I unintentionally left it at a hotel in Rosemont, IL, and so I don't have it anymore. Feel free to rip your clothes, put on sackcloth, and sit in ashes with me. When I scrape up enough money, perhaps I'll get it again.

On the other hand, I have finished "Manhunt." Excellent book. I learned a few things that wasn't taught in my high school history class, especially about how Booth spent his time hiding out before he met his demise (and subsequently his Maker).