I traversed the length of the mall toward the Lincoln Memorial, the second greatest president only after Washington himself. If Washington presided over the creation of the Union, it was Abraham Lincoln who presided over its preservation. As I stood atop the steps of the Lincoln Memorial and gazed east toward the Washington Monument, I realized that that memorial remained a Pagan obelisk; it did not become a cross from that side either. Yet on Easter Sunday, thousands gathered on the steps of Lincoln’s secular shrine and gazed east toward that Pagan obelisk to honor a God that has really, nothing to do with either, a sort of religious rape of the secular.
Behind them, inscribed on the wall, Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address, which honors not the will of God but the wishes of man:
Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent a new nation, conceived in liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.
Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation, so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure. We are met on a great battle-field of that war. We have come to dedicate a portion of that field, as a final resting place for those who here gave their lives that that nation might live. It is altogether fitting and proper that we should do this.
But, in a larger sense, we can not dedicate, we can not consecrate, we can not hallow this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it, far above our poor power to add or detract. The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here. It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us—that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion—that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain—that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom—and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.
The ground at Gettysburg is, significantly, consecrated by man – not by Lincoln and his listeners, because as he says, that was above their “power to add or detract” and not by God – but by the men who died there, on that ground, who so “nobly advanced” the cause for which they fought. The Nation may be, he admits at the end, almost in passing, “under God” but it is not God and it is not prayers that have won the honors but mortal man and his willingness to shed his own blood in a cause greater than himself, a cause that was not, in Lincoln’s mind, that of God but very secular – the preservation of the Union.
The Lincoln Memorial is a grand, secular shrine, not a House of God but a House of Man, for men, a house of memories in honor of the man who saved the Union the thirteen original colonies had agreed upon by signing and ratifying the very secular Constitution.
Moses went up a mountain and came down with a Hittite vassal treaty. George Washington presided over a group of mortal men who gathered together and did not receive from God but created with their own hands and out of their own minds, a unique document in history: the U.S. Constitution. It looks nothing like a Hittite vassal treaty. It looks like no other document in world history. It is not something the Jewish high priests would have recognized; there is no curses and blessings formula in our Constitution, a feature found in any vassal treaty, including that between God and the Israelites (what will happen if the terms of the treaty are or are not followed. See Deut. 28). If the Constitution is a covenant, it is a secular covenant, a covenant, as Lincoln reminds us, “of the people, by the people, for the people.”
Power derives from the mandate of the people, not from God, who has no part of the process and no vote, and no mention. The Republicans insisting that the Constitution is derived from the Ten Commandments is like insisting that that great white Pagan obelisk is instead a big white Christian cross. You can say it’s a cross all you want, but it’s always going to remain what it is: a giant white Pagan obelisk, a symbol out of Egypt, not a symbol of Moses. The Constitution is like that too: there is no mention of Moses or his Ten Commandments or of his God or that God’s supposed will. It begins not with “I am the Lord thy God” but with “We the People” and that is the most significant preamble in the history of the world: We the People.
It is the People who mandate; not God, not Kings, not Popes, but the People. And standing there on the steps of Lincoln’s secular shrine myself, and staring off toward Washington’s obelisk, I saw through the National Mall a tenuous link with the Founding Fathers, a sort of timeline of their will, a secular capital to govern a secular nation comprised of very religious people, who recognized that to have their rights of belief, that everyone in that “We the People” had to have their rights of belief respected as well. There was to be no more Catholics, no more Jews, no more Protestants: only Americans, united not through loyalty to their respective doctrines, but to the idea of the Constitution itself and their inalienable rights as human beings.
And Lincoln didn’t differentiate between blacks and whites, or Christians and atheists or Pagans and Jews but said, significantly, again without mention of God, “Allow all the governed an equal voice in the government, and that, and only that, is self government.”
Words every Republican who claims to stand with Lincoln, and all who stand against tyranny, would do well to remember.
Photographs by Hrafnkell Haraldsson
 George Mendenhall “Covenant Forms in Israelite Tradition” The Biblical Archaeologist 17 (1954), 58-60.