(c) Rev. Doug Slagle, Minister to the Gathering at Northern Hills, All Rights Reserved
Please click here to listen to the message. See below to read it.
On November 6, 1860, Americans went to the polls in order to choose one of three candidates for President. As most people know, Abraham Lincoln won that election – but with only 40 percent of the vote. The result was a deeply divided nation. A simple majority won, but a sizable Southern minority was very angry.
Almost immediately after the election, deep South states began to secede from the United States. South Carolina seceded first, followed by six other states. By the time of Lincoln’s inauguration on March 4, 1861, those seven states had formally established the Confederate States of America and elected its own President and Congress. The very survival of the United States – what the Founding Fathers had risked their lives to create – was at stake.
In that atmosphere, Lincoln took the oath of office and delivered his first inaugural address. He held out an olive branch to the South – saying the Federal government would not interfere with the institution of slavery where it already existed. He also pledged not to send troops into seceding states while differences were negotiated. But, he also argued the non-negotiable premise of the US constitution. Every US State agreed, when they entered the Union, that they enjoy some rights of self-government, but only within a constitutional boundary that granted the Federal government overall authority. Implicit, but unsaid in his speech, was that secession is illegal.
Lincoln finished his speech by extending another offer of reconciliation to the South and calling upon the common ideals that formed America. “We are not enemies,” he said, “but friends. We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained, it must not break our bonds of affection. The mystic chords of memory, stretching from every battlefield and patriot grave to every living heart and hearthstone all over this broad land, will yet swell the chorus of the Union, when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.”
Six weeks later, however, dark angels of aggression led Confederate troops to fire on Fort Sumpter – and the Civil War began. Over 600,000 people died in America’s bloodiest war. It ended four years later with the abolishment of slavery.
Last year, the well known historian Jon Meacham wrote a book entitled The Soul of America: The Battle for Our Better Angels. He borrowed the phrase “better angels” from Lincoln’s first inaugural address – just as I borrowed it for the title of today’s message.
Meacham was motivated to write the book because of widespread shock over the policies of President Trump and a sense that America faces a crisis of values and even of its very existence. Many people, including me, view our current government’s policies as regressive. The US, it seems, is moving backward as immigrants, women, people of color, and LGBTQ persons are further marginalized and stripped of their rights. The institution of democracy appears to be used against itself.
As a capable historian and writer, Meacham tries to calm these concerns. While he clearly says that we live in divided times, he is optimistic America will endure, based on the durability of our values. Our nation’s better angels, he says, will prevail despite these troubled times – just as Abraham Lincoln said they would at another moment of national division.
What is necessary for the survival of America, according to Meacham, is to heed the better angels of which Lincoln spoke. A careful reading of his words show that he appealed to the common bonds of unity, to our nation’s historic fight for human rights, and to the even greater ideal that people are connected the Golden Rule ethic to love our neighbors, our sisters and our brothers. We must not, he said, be enemies divided by our passions.
Lincoln spoke at an existential moment for America. Would it survive with its values intact? Or would violence, angry passions, and division destroy everything? As I’ve said, many people believe we are in danger of a similar crisis moment today.
I discussed positive Halloween masks in my messages the last two Sundays as a way to focus our thoughts on ways we can be models of goodness. We have no credibility speaking against hate and a lack of civility unless we model love, unity and kindness amongst ourselves – and in our community. In this time of trouble, we resist best by being examples of decency and love that stand in stark contrast to the forces of hate.
I chose all female masks to discuss this month for a reason. I believe the virtues, ideals and good inclinations that can help lead us out of troubled times are mostly feminine. The policies and attitudes put forward by the President and his government are a form of hyper-machismo. Arrogance, bullying, angry speech, fear of those who seem different, tribalism, misogyny and lying can only be stopped if a majority of people adopt attitudes opposite to them. We must celebrate facts and truth over opinion and so-called alternative facts. The common sense search for truth is symbolized by goddesses Justicia and Prudentia whom I discussed two weeks ago. To celebrate the courage of women who stand up to male harassment, we can wear the positive mask of the handmaid – a figure I talked about last week. And, to reject mostly male attitudes of acrimony and violence, we should wear better angel masks – the topic of my message today.
I submit what has too long defined our nation is a form of masculinity characterized mostly by aggression and violent anger. Indeed, those dark angels are what Lincoln spoke against by appealing to the good angels of peaceful reconciliation and cooperation.
And we can appeal to those same better angels today by following them ourselves. We must aspire to compassion, selflessness, truth, resilience and empathy. As I’ve said, those are mostly feminine attributes.
Ultimately, to heed our better angels is to be guided by the authentically feminine in each of us – women and men. While biology and the influence of gender specific hormones determine some of our attitudes – for men to be more action oriented and for women to be more open to peace – all men are not necessarily aggressive and all women do not necessarily support reconciliation. As sociologists point out, global cultures have historically been male dominated despite the population being over 50% female. That is because many women have accepted male dominance. If a woman wants to succeed in a man’s world, she learns to sublimate her feminine better angels to instead think and act like a man. Men have no incentive to think and act like a woman since society has not valued them. The result has been a persistently masculine culture of competition and aggression supported by both sexes.
Women have thus been caught in a catch-22 situation. Even as women may want to follow their better angels, they cannot. They must neglect their good instincts and embrace aggression instead. When they do so, however, women are criticized for being power-hungry, pushy and rude.
On the other hand, if a woman is sensitive, cares what other people think of her, and advocates for discussion and compromise, she is accused of being emotional and weak. Men don’t want women to be like them, and they don’t want women to be who they are either. I believe that is why there is so much anger and hatred toward diversity, social justice and cooperation in our nation. We seem to have lost touch with female inclinations that exist in all of us. But that must change. And as we often say, we must be the change we want to see.
The benefits of heeding more feminine instincts are well documented. Steven Pinker, a Harvard professor of psychology, in his book entitled The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined, says that there has been a continual decline in violence throughout history. Wars have gradually become less frequent and less bloody. Murders, tortures and random killings have declined as well. Entire societies are no longer wiped out as they were only a few hundred years ago when male dominant colonial powers killed large native populations. Today, Steven Pinker argues, is one of the most non-violent times ever – even though wars, murders and rapes still happen. He attributes this continual violence decline to several factors, but a primary one has been the ever increasing influence of women and their values.
Women have helped reduce wars because of the human cost they exact. Women understand the sacrifice it takes to raise children – and the waste that occurs when sons and daughters become cannon fodder. Women have thus historically encouraged their husbands, and taught their sons, to be less angry and violent.
Women have advanced other social benefits as well. One global study indicates that the more women who serve in parliaments and congresses, the better a nation’s education system becomes. Women not only advocate for the rights of women, they do so for the rights of children and other marginalized people. Female politicians help reduce political corruption. Women, more than men, promote increased charity. Female business owners, managers and members of Boards of Directors bring about, studies show, more success for an organization and greater benefits for its employees.
Women have equally encouraged world religions to be more inclusive. Women have promoted the use of gender neutral language when referring to God, Yahweh, and Allah. Christian, Jewish and Islamic feminists have pushed male religious leaders to share spiritual leadership and reduce gender discrimination. Since religion has historically been used as a pretext for war and oppression, women have pushed religions to be true to their ethics of peace, compromise and equality.
What all of this indicates to me is that today’s troubled times ironically offer an opportunity. Just when it seems our culture is headed toward disaster, the truth is likely very different. Dark angels may now be rallied in opposition to humanity’s good inclinations, but they do so because they know they will lose. Abraham Lincoln and the historian Jon Meacham will be proven correct – the better angels of our nature, those that mostly come from women, will prevail.
It’s no accident, I hope, that as women are ascendant in their willingness to speak out against male dominance, human culture will advance for the better. I remain hopeful that President Trump represents one of the last gasps of success that white, straight men, as a group, will have. People and forces who fight with deceit and hatred do so only when they are weak. Strength, instead, has no need to attack or cheat. Truth and goodness may seem diminished right now, but that is only because of the temporary shadows dark angels cast.
My own life, while not extraordinary, tells me that hopes for the nation and world are not in vain. People can overcome a reluctance to embrace mostly feminine attributes. For too much of my life, I bought into the fallacy that male aggression is good and, because I’m not that way, I thought of myself as deficient. I’m still told by some people to not be sensitive, and to stop caring what other people think of me. I’m far from perfect, and I sometimes fail to follow better angels, but when I do, when I’m not afraid of showing compassion, of caring how my actions affect others, of encouraging cooperation and compromise over fighting, I know I’m at my strongest. Indeed, that often requires me to summon the courage to be what society has told me I shouldn’t be – a man who occasionally believes, speaks and acts with inclinations that are identified as feminine.
That does not mean I’m ineffective or weak. I hope it means instead that I’m human – someone who thinks and behaves in ways that are neither all male, or all female. I hope to live as balanced as possible – one who understands the few evolutionary and biological benefits of maleness, softened and complimented by the goodness of women. That is a kind of balance I wish for everyone – and for our culture. We need to rebalance and allow ourselves and our culture to embrace feminine inclinations to affirm what is true and virtuous.
In these current troubled times, when hyper-masculinity has made too many people lose sight of eternal human virtues, we need more than ever to wear the positive masks of our mostly feminine better angels.
I wish you each much peace and joy.