With malice toward none, with charity for all

First published March 5, 2016

Democracy is made for disagreement, but for it to work, everyone must have a seat at the table, and the tone must be respectful. Inclusiveness, civility and individual liberty are its defining characteristics.

It warmed my heart when I went to the Nelson County Republicans’ Lincoln Dinner Thursday night, and the last speaker was a black woman who overcame poverty and rose through the military and industry to become lieutenant governor of Kentucky.

Jenean Hampton is an exemplar of the ideals of equality of opportunity that Abraham Lincoln devoted his career to, and upon which his party was founded.

The lady was gracious in her remarks. She talked about how she persuades people about the truth of conservative principles, because they work. Unlike many others in the tea party movement, she makes this argument without derision or contempt.

During a season in which I’ve often hung my head in embarrassment over the harsh rhetoric on the right about Mexican Americans and Muslims, Governor Hampton, for a shining moment, made me proud again to be a Republican.

In a letter to his friend Joshua Speed in Kentucky, written Aug. 24, 1855, Lincoln expressed his frustration about the growing anger in his country over immigration and ethnic and religious diversity, and how it was being exploited by the American Party, better known as the Know-Nothings.

“I am not a Know-Nothing. That is certain. How could I be?” he wrote. “How could anyone who abhors the oppression of Negroes be in favor of degrading classes of white people? Our progress in degeneracy appears to me to be pretty rapid. As a nation, we began by declaring that ‘all men are created equal.’ We now practically read it, ‘all men are created equal except Negroes.’ When the Know-Nothings get control, it will read, ‘all men are created equal except Negroes, foreigners and Catholics.’ When it comes to this, I should prefer emigrating to some country where they make no pretense of loving liberty — to Russia, for instance, where despotism can be taken pure, and without the base alloy of hypocrisy.”

These were strong words from a man who, in public life, liked the adage that “a drop of honey catches more flies than a gallon of gall.”

Lincoln, and his heir, Ronald Reagan, were men of humble beginnings who became great because they knew humility is the hallmark of a public servant. They weren’t arrogant and abrasive like most members of their party today who seek the presidency. They deflected criticism with good humor and gentle sarcasm.

I came of age in the era of Reagan, and I can’t once remember him calling anyone a liar or a loser, or questioning an opponent’s manhood, or dissing his mother, or using the F-word in a speech, or ridiculing a reporter because of his physical disability or her menstrual period, or wanting to punch a protestor in the face.

When I remember Reagan’s visage, I see a sunny smile, not the scowl of someone who wants to be Benito Mussolini and who quotes him on social media.

If Lincoln had lived to see the rise of the Ku Klux Klan, he most certainly would have harshly condemned it as un-American and un-Christian. And Reagan, an Irish-American who made a pathway to citizenship for immigrants and invoked William Bradford’s biblical imagery of America as a “city upon a hill,” would not tolerate bigotry.

Both Lincoln and Reagan knew that in a two-party republic, nothing can be accomplished without bipartisan compromise and polite dialogue. They were men of strong moral principles, but they were also tough-minded pragmatists who knew how to treat an adversary with deference.

As an evangelical Christian, if I were to choose someone who best represents Judeo-Christian values in public life, I would use the test of the Apostle Paul, who described the fruit of the Spirit as love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. Lincoln and Reagan represented these traits. But many would-be leaders today represent hatred, anger, rancor, intolerance, meanness, smugness, selfishness, bile and boorish behavior.

There is a debate going on within the Republican Party, and it is one the party needs to have. It is over whether the GOP is to be the party of Lincoln and Reagan or the reincarnation of the Know-Nothings.

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