Responding to DOMA with the spirit of Lincoln
July 2, 2013 § 1 Comment
Yesterday I wrote about reactions to the DOMA decision, arguing that some of the opposition disturbed me in its hyperbole and in its mix of despair and vituperation. I tried to offer an approach more sensitive to the human and personal realities at stake, an approach that takes seriously the moral disagreements without reducing people to political issues, without retreating into enclaves of social media.
As I reflected further, I thought of a great passage from one of my favorite books of the last few years, Doris Kearns Goodwin’s Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln. It is admittedly a different context, but Lincoln’s comments offer wisdom to anyone engaged in passionate conversation about vital matters, particularly matters that relate to politics and religion. His comments, more importantly, apply to people on all sides of an issue. According to Goodwin:
Rather than upbraid slaveowners, Lincoln sought to comprehend their position through empathy. More than a decade earlier, he had employed a similar approach when he advised temperance advocates to refrain from denouncing drinkers in “thundering tones of anathema and denunciation,” for denunciation would inevitably be met with denunciation, “crimination with crimination, and anathema with anathema.” In a passage directed at abolitionists as well as temperance reformers, he had observed that it was the nature of man, when told that he should be “shunned and despised,” and condemned as the author “of all the vice and misery and crime in the land,” to “retreat within himself, close all the avenues to his head and his heart.”
Though the cause be “naked truth itself, transformed to the heaviest lance, harder than steel,” the sanctimonious reformer could no more pierce the heart of the drinker or the slaveowner than “penetrate the hard shell of a tortoise with a rye straw. Such is man, and so must he be understood by those who would lead him.” In order to “win a man to your cause,” Lincoln explained, you must first reach his heart, “the great high road to his reason.” (p. 167-168)