Memorial Day

Monday, May 26, 2008

THIS IS a classic holiday in the dictionary sense: a day when you don't have to go to work. Better yet, the weather is usually nice. But to many people in America, Memorial Day also partakes of the original meaning of the word: holy day. Not holy in the sense of one religious faith or another but rather of what historians such as Walter A. McDougall have called the American civic religion, as set forth most powerfully by Abraham Lincoln.

It was a doctrine that, if it did not worship the law, revered it above all else as the foundation of liberty and just government. And yet, Mr. McDougall notes, the law, as Lincoln saw it, "was a mere instrumentality if it did not serve values derived from the Declaration of Independence." And how did one reconcile these values with the institution of slavery?

As Lincoln soon came to understand all too well, some of the most basic questions in this high-minded civic religion of lofty ideals and mutual respect and cooperation could, in the end, be settled only by blood. And at Gettysburg, that truth was incorporated into the faith, as Lincoln spoke on farmland that had become a vast cemetery: ground consecrated and hallowed -- these were the words he used -- by "the brave men, living and dead, who struggled here" and from whose sacrifice all must henceforth strive to bring about a "new birth of freedom." In the words of Julia Ward Howe's battle hymn, it was a war not to make men holy but to make them free, and in the more idealistic renderings of the American civic faith before and since, this has been the stated purpose, no matter how imperfectly pursued.

Today there are thousands of brave men and women, living and dead, in our country who have struggled and suffered and who deserve our respect and honor -- many more living than in past wars because of the great improvements in medical treatment for the wounded. The country is currently debating -- and will be debating for some time to come -- what it can provide to heal and help those who have given up just about everything for their country, and how it can help their families as well. These debates will always be in part about budgets and bottom lines. But on this Memorial Day, one thing is clear: The talk needs to be more -- a great deal more -- about sacred obligations.


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