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It is no secret really as to what holds a society together. It’s called morality.

Jon Meacham defines what is moral as anything that “is in harmony with the commandment that one ought to do unto others as we would have them do to us.”

That, he says in his new book, And There Was Light, is what Abraham Lincoln tried to do as President, doing what was right because it was right regardless of the cost to him politically and personally.

“Taken all in all,” Meacham writes of Lincoln, “which is how we should take him, all in all – he was a human being who sought to do right more often than he did wrong.”

That was the key to his greatness at a time in our nation’s life when great leadership proved critical for the survival of American democracy.

Moral commitment to doing what is right is never a perfect thing, but it is always a necessary thing, especially when the decisions one makes affects so many others.

Lincoln was hated by slave owners and criticized as too incremental by abolitionists, yet he stayed the course of saving the union because he believed it was the right cause.

The nation could not and would not survive, he believed, half free and half slave. That is why he chose to end slavery in the South.

History shows that great leadership is possible only when leaders follow their moral conscience rather than political expediency. They don’t do it perfectly because they are human, but ever how haltingly they do so they make the effort in spite of the cost it exacts.

The timing of Meacham’s book couldn’t be more fortuitous, if not providential. As a historian, he speaks to the times in which we are living by simply drawing the contrast between Lincoln as a man trying to do what was right with politicians today who not only don’t try to do what is right, but who are trying to convince the American public that we should not expect that of them.

They want us to believe as they do that politics is a game of power, whereas Meacham says Lincoln considered it a sacred trust to use for the good of the people to whom a democratic government ultimately belongs.

Lincoln’s determination to provide moral leadership wasn’t because he was a zealous Christian. He wasn’t. He had neither time nor affinity for organized religion, but, as Meacham underscores, he was a man of faith who believed in the necessity of a nation to practice kindness, do justice, and humble itself before God, as expressed in Micah 6:8.

Religion per se doesn’t lead to that kind of leadership, but belief in God helps. Ever how one gets there, though, nations need leaders guided by their moral conscience that tells them the right thing to do when others would have them do something different.

I think such leadership is precisely what our founders counted on sustaining their great experiment in self-government, and is why they wrote a Constitution that is at its core a moral document.

“We the People of the United States,” the Preamble declares, “in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.”

A more perfect Union, justice, domestic Tranquility, the common defense, general welfare, the Blessings of Liberty – these are expressions of moral principles as much as they are political aspirations. So are claims that “all men are created equal” or that everyone is entitled to “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”

We can acknowledge that our founders were flawed in their understanding and application of these principles, but they knew the work of creating a more perfect union would be ongoing because doing what is right is always a work in progress.

It is commitment to that work that has made moral leadership in every generation essential to America’s future. It is the lack of such commitment today that is the worry.

While there is no religious test for public office, as the Constitution declares, moral leadership transcends that prohibition, as the lack thereof in Donald Trump’s presidency revealed.

The only good thing that came from his four years in office was the fact that he proved just how dangerous it is for the country when morality is completely ignored and political expediency determines every decision.  

We are now living with the fact that he infected a lot of Republicans with the same amoral and immoral approach to politics, making moral leadership all the more urgent.

Again, this is not about religion. Lincoln embodied moral leadership even though he was not religious at all. It is, instead, about investing power in leaders who can be trusted to do what is right because it is right.

There was a time when we took such leadership for granted. That it is a rare display of character these days is why we know it is so desperately needed again.

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