Has America, like Rome of old, crossed its Rubicon? Some observers say yes. They have begun charting the republic’s decline and impending fall. Apart from any threat of sudden international war, they insist, America is tottering on the brink of tragedy. A decisive turn in national thought and life assertedly has placed the United States beyond redemption; the only hope that now remains is for emergency rescue and ailing survival.

The Sense Of Doom

Pronouncing judgment on America is no longer an exclusive franchise of a few weeping Jeremiahs. Nor is it peculiar to evangelists constantly reminding the nation of its spiritual decline, its neglect of a great Christian heritage, its whoring after false gods of money and ease. Many pulpiteers are indeed swift to show that despite America’s religiosity no sweeping repentance and faith, no decisive change of heart and life, places social forces in our great cities conspicuously in the service of the living God. Billy Graham readily admits this even of New York City. Religious analysts are finding America spiritually and morally second-rate.

While indisposed to talk much about the one true God, students of American culture likewise decry the idols of the masses. Determination of the right by mere majority opinion, and an infatuation with popular approval, have inseminated a cheap and artificial sense of values into modern life and thought. Broadway measures worth by length of run. On television or on radio, Neilsen and Hooper ratings and audience polls determine contract renewals. What is popular is right, not to mention “good” business. Thus the god of conformity snares individuals into group thinking, and loyalty only to society. Detachment of responsibility from the will of God has led to a vanishing sense of responsibility. American culture has accordingly become mediocre.

Scientists no less than religionists are doom-conscious. Pointing to Soviet superiority in the satellite sphere, they question America’s capacity to reverse the balances of strategy to overtake and outdistance the Soviet program. They decry our loss of scientific leadership. By late 1959, they warn, the United States will be less than 15 minutes from 75 Russian ICBMs capable of wiping out the Strategic Air Command’s existing bases.

A similar verdict of retrogression attaches to still another sphere, our traditions of government. In the disregard of inherited values that hinder controls and centralized power, and in the subtle restriction of individual freedoms, some students of political science see the nation drifting toward the whirlpool of a secret totalitarianism (while congratulating itself for having avoided the Soviet variety). In this matter of controls, former editor of The Washington Post Felix Morley is not alone in his conviction that “the Rubicon has already been crossed; nobody can any longer think escape from this trap an easy matter.” Adventure on the collectivistic toboggan slide both explains and evidences America’s demotion to a second-rate republic.

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Leaders in economics report similar disturbances. Soaring costs of government, the temptation to accept inflation as a way of life, the control of credit for political purposes, national prosperity geared to the federal budget (especially to growing defense expenditures, perhaps leading ultimately to a vested interest in regard for other world powers as a military threat), the endless spiral of punitive taxation (personal income taxes estimated at $32.5 billion for 1956 alone)—to many economists these tendencies disclose America’s permanent surrender to the squeeze of socializing forces. Since it is politically unfeasible for either major party to repudiate this centralizing trend, the process may never be reversed but only modified “here” and “there.” Some warning voices like Frank Chodorov’s once mounted soapboxes as young radicals to espouse socialism. Today these same political theorists recognize the symptoms of cancerous collectivism in our national life and lament a blind economic policy. They warn us that America has already taken the decisive collectivistic turn. Not only Big Labor but Big Business also often seeks its own special privilege above the principles of freedom. Free enterprise is now so frequently pushed to secondary importance that the populace is no longer shocked nor chagrined. A controlled economy meanwhile nourishes the worship of mammon. The multitude tolerates and approves, and even demands and clamors for this household god, while the almighty state perpetuates the existence of the idol. The masses have thus enlarged socialistic concession through leaders endorsing the tawdry popular values and thereby perpetuating their personal power and office. Leaders, the masses and the “privileged groups” alike, therefore, have all sown the wind. Obscured by the resultant whirlwind is the heritage that once made America unique among the nations of the world. Both the visibility and the vision of the nation are impaired.

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The Clouded Vision

The extraordinary origin of the American republic the Founding Fathers ascribed to divine providence. To them the United States represented the major political effort in human history to limit the powers of the state and to guard human freedoms under God from the encroachment of tyrants. As clearly set forth in the American Constitution, establishment of a federal government with powers restricted, divided into separate branches, balanced by states rights, dependent on the consent of the governed, envisioned the preservation of specific human rights and values.

The basic and sustaining principle of these values and freedoms—that government is limited—is directly antithetical to that by which the U.S.S.R. abolishes individual rights (viz., that all power is concentrated in the state). One constitutional provision that dramatically enforces limited government is separation of Church and State, which boldly contradicts the long European traditions of the church-state and the state church. This disjunction was both to limit political power and guard human rights, and also to protect the nation against a monopoly of political interests by one sectarian tradition. Separation of Church and State did not aim to isolate spiritual from political concerns so churches lost significance in political affairs; least of all did it aim to subordinate the spiritual to the political order. There was no desire to weaken the role of the churches in the life of the nation; rather, restricted state power was intended to support and strengthen those spiritual priorities through which a nation remains virile and noble.

In this debate between limited government and state absolutism, the position of Christian conscience is obvious. In Romans 13 Paul delineates the Judeo-Christian view: political authority derives from God and is answerable to God. Likewise, man’s obedience to the state is under God. Man bears inalienable rights by creation, the Declaration of Independence insists, and these the state is to preserve, not to destroy nor to curtail. The Bible asserts that the state must not frustrate the obedience man owes to God; it gives no quarter to the doctrine of the omnipotent state. The Old Testament prohibited even kings from seizing the private property of the people (1 Kings 21).

Skepticism over absolute values underlies the Soviet thesis that human rights are relative. Marxist evolutionary philosophy forces modern culture to choose between supernaturalism and naturalism; human dignity and human degradation; absolute truth and values and state-determined and imposed opinion and ideals. Totalitarianism compels its citizens to comply with whatever the state defines as right and good. Skepticism over changeless values creates the void into which the state rushes to propound temporary values with absolute rigor.

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If all values are unfixed and ever-changing, political leaders in a democracy no less than in a totalitarian state may assert and enforce personal expediency in the name of principle. Majority opinion is not inconsistent with self-government, but self-government becomes impossible in the absence of values. If human preference alone determines policy, political theory simply vascillates with the changing tides of prevailing opinion.

The Loss Of Freedoms

In the present century Marxian Communism has whetted the world’s lust for power and state controls. During the past 25 years the cancerous philosophy of state power, civilian controls, transient values and principles, has so penetrated even America’s heritage and life that suddenly the United States appears incurably riddled with disease.

The federal government’s encroachment into many areas of American life shows up especially in affairs once considered the responsibility of the Christian churches. Education, for example, was long the concern and duty of the family and of the churches. (Few people any longer realize that much of the impetus for mass education rests ultimately on the biblical conviction that every person must be reached with a core of information vital to his temporal and eternal happiness.) But during the past century has come the rise of mass public education. Influenced in our generation by the naturalistic and relativistic philosophy of John Dewey, educational administrators have by and large nurtured socialistic tendencies, including the growing clamor for federal support of public schools. Like education, charity and welfare also were once the concern of the churches. (The effective alleviation of human suffering owes more to the biblical view of God than twentieth century humanism allows us to remember.) The state has assumed increasing direction of these responsibilities, too. On the domestic scene, social security and unemployment insurance have won their way; socialized medicine now waits in line as a hopeful government project.

More could be said to illustrate the government’s assumption of responsibilities once belonging to the churches. But equally striking is the fact that in the aforementioned areas of enlarging state power, as well as of civilian controls not directly involving Christian traditions, the churches have shown little resistance. How far the Christian conscience had lost its sense of heritage in some of these matters, e.g., education, is evident from the official statement on The Church and the Public Schools approved by the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church in the U.S.A. in 1957. This report not only throws the weight of Christian approval behind the public schools as such; it also throws the weight of Presbyterian influence against private schools. This is exactly what could have been expected from a committee dominated (as it was) by public schoolmen, but it hardly represents one’s expectations from the Presbyterian conscience. Such surrender of responsibility could hardly augur resistance against additional inroads of the state.

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If America has crossed the Rubicon; if the nation’s heritage is now beyond preservation; if the drift to the power-state and to a controlled society cannot be stayed, communist penetration from the outside is not alone to blame. Equal judgment falls upon the churches for indifference and ineffectiveness in the hour of America’s greatest trial. Amid the world’s subtle conflict between political and spiritual loyalties, the churches sin by their silence. Today not Nero but the churches fiddle while Rome burns. The churches have even approved leaders who support socializing and collectivistic trends in the name of the Christian community, and have permitted them without protest to speak for Christian conscience.

When The Churches Failed

What explains this deadly lassitude of the churches? In America’s tragic transition from limited government to the power-state where is the churches’ repellent force?

1. Pre-empting the right to speak for all Protestant churches in politico-economic affairs, the National Council of Churches (formerly the Federal Council) has tended in its social pronouncements to support collectivism and controls in national life. In two respects the NCC has failed to undergird the tradition of limited government and human liberties; its social declarations, bold and specific, veered to the left, while its theological affirmations were nebulous and obscure, since NCC’s inclusive policy subdued doctrinal issues for the sake of peaceful ecclesiastical co-existence. While neglecting a Christian theology of government and freedom, the massive voice of American Protestantism approved socializing tendencies in American life. The entrenched leadership even violated the conscience of its own constituency by often pledging that conscience without its consent. Sensing its repressive force and fearing its coercive and punitive power, local member churches and ministers seldom protested such organizational commitments; ministers hesitated to contradict the official statements. The Protestant churches themselves thus became vulnerable to the fetters of ecclesiastical control.

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2. Although some independent agencies publicized official resolutions of protest against the National Council’s collectivistic pronouncements, they offered little guidance in positive Christian social ethics. Inside or outside the preaching ministry, they seldom faced the matter of God and government, faith and freedom, with active concern. While NCC spokesmen abetted the pressure for controls, most evangelical pulpits lacked a careful recital of man’s rights and duties under God.

3. Though becoming increasingly amoral, the state preened itself with morality and many trappings of religion. Some politicians espoused the indispensability of religion in national life even while they voted for more socialistic controls. They shaped plaudits “appropriate to the constituencies,” which not only approved special interest but basically revealed political expedience. Certainly, to doubt unduly the sincere churchly interests of many government leaders is unwarranted. One of CHRISTIANITY TODAY’S contributing editors, Dr. Edward L. R. Elson, properly insists that piety must not be suspect simply because it dwells by the Potomac. Whenever the state speaks with a sacred voice, however, it requires special scrutiny. In its beginnings even the German Nazi movement attracted many people by “spiritual qualities” that obscured its evils. In recent decades, one American president on re-election eve made political use of the Episcopal Prayer Book. Examination of public speeches discloses American politicians to be more gifted with complimentary references to Deity than with sustained expositions of the theology of politics. Labor, business and government all become more inclined to locate a religious justification for their objectives. Labor uses its Religion in Labor Movement to propagandize its legislative goals; management and labor resort to clergymen to propagandize their positions. This tendency of big government, big labor and big business to “use” religion in support of their programs is a reflex of America’s growing religiosity that calls for careful scrutiny. Rather than being flattered by it, the churches need to challenge it. Behold the terrors of Communism, tolerating only as much “freedom” for the churches as serves the tyrant’s whim!

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Misguided Social Action

Leaders who endorse specific social measures in the name of the Church may think thereby to make “the Gospel relevant to our times.” Usually they only embarrass the Church. There are many reasons for this:

1. For every churchman who endorses a particular organization and its program (cf. the forthcoming CIO-AFL propaganda effort for the closed shop, as against “right to work” laws), there is another to oppose it. The public soon wonders if the Church does not know her own mind, or whether she is a propaganda agency for whatever social movement best exploits her endorsement. The competing and conflicting proclamations of ecclesiastical leaders not only lessen the Church’s stature in the eyes of the outside world, but also confuse the membership within the churches themselves.

2. Such pronouncements tend to be divisive. Often “social action” declarations by ecumenical and denominational leaders agitate their constituencies. Admission is long overdue that such statements were often ill-advised and represented only the personal opinion of certain individuals and pressure groups.

3. Such proclamations frequently do not express the thinking of the local churches and therefore ought not to be issued in their name by the top echelon. An element of pressure shadows the church member’s affiliation with organizations professing to speak “for so many denominations” or for “so many millions of Protestants.” A movement that not only propagandizes the views of certain leaders, but catapults those convictions into prominence by exaggerating their known support, becomes a vehicle of misrepresentation rather than of truth. Mr. Leonard Read, president of the Foundation for Economic Education, recently criticized both clergy and laity who do not protest social action pronouncements that misrepresent their convictions. Mr. Read suggests that the minister who disagrees with ecumenical social policies but feels obliged to “stay in” and “straighten things out” should apply that logic to the Communist party. The best way to “straighten things out,” he contends, is to decline support. Mr. Read further contends that membership in organizations which repeatedly violate politico-economic views of their constituencies [theological and economic views of most American churchgoers are considered far to the right of ecumenical leadership] weakens the very personality of the members. Integrity requires an individual to represent his convictions accurately to those about him. Each unprotested misrepresentation of one’s beliefs, each unprotested identification with groups that do not express one’s convictions, weakens and finally destroys an individual’s character. Mr. Read warns that personal integrity always suffers when loyalty to a group takes precedence over loyalty to the truth.

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What Can Be Done?

What is the churches’ responsibility when a nation’s decline is concealed by a proud front of military power, of scientific genius, of commercial efficiency and is undetected by the self-satisfied masses in pursuit of luxury or pleasure? The Christian community is not without biblical guidance in this matter. In apostolic times many conditions in the old Roman Empire were not far different from ours. In treating social ethics in his epistle to the Romans, Paul writes the believers: “You know what hour it is.… The night is far gone.… It is full time now for you to wake from sleep …” (13:11ff., RSV).

Christianity neither deifies nor humanizes the state. Romans 13 no more means the God-state (the state is God) than Revelation 13 means the Beast-state (the state is inherently demonic). Human government is divinely willed to preserve justice and to restrain evil in a sinful society. Government may indeed deteriorate, overwhelmed by the very injustice and wickedness it ought to restrain. The Book of Revelation warns that government most readily becomes a Beast-state when it thinks itself the God-state. It then arrogates to itself the right to control every phase of human experience and to require the worship of itself.

Romans 13 speaks not only of the powers of the state, but refers as well to Christian social responsibility. Paul declares that the state is to be supported by taxes, by honor and by good works in general. More than this, he obligates Christian conscience to social fulfillment of the Commandments in a spirit of love. “Render … to all their dues.… Owe no man anything, but to love one another: for he that loveth another hath fulfilled the law. For this, Thou shalt not commit adultery … kill … steal … bear false witness … covet; and if there be any other commandment, it is briefly comprehended in this saying, namely, Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself” (13:7–9).

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Limits Of The State

The first conclusion to be drawn is that the state, deriving its authority from God, cannot require of its citizens anything that violates the revealed commandments; since the power is ordained for the good of the people, passive obedience is not required when it ceases to be good. The second is that the Christian citizen by obedient fulfillment of these commandments in the spirit of love exhibits the highest patriotism.

The Scriptures here provide another equally important guideline. That is the directness with which the Apostle proceeds to the governing principles of revealed morality to fix Christian social responsibility. The Bible contains tenets that define love of God and love of neighbor in greater detail than the Ten Commandments. Biblical ethics asserts, for example, such specific rules as to pray for rulers, and to pay one’s taxes. But one thing characterizes biblical social ethics: it nowhere endorses specific contemporary movements and organizations in such a way as to throw the sanction of Christianity behind them. Rather, it states the great social concerns of revealed religion in terms of divinely disclosed ethical principles that must determine and motivate social responsibility and action. It does not even condemn slavery, though it states the principles that sounded the death knell of that evil.

Rule Of Christian Action

This norm for Christian social responsibility guards the Church from two errors so frequently committed by modern ecclesiastical spokesmen. First, it exhibits Christian duty as performance of the revealed will of God. This deters the churches from social action of merely humanitarian and humanistic nature. (One major turning point in recent American life was prominence of “the welfare of man” as the dominant social goal. Under the umbrella of this cliche, and detached from any of the priorities of revealed religion, the masses gave life a purely materialistic interpretation. Furthermore, many political leaders successfully proclaimed the solution of all problems (international relations, unemployment, education) to be simply the spending of more money.)

To frame Christian social action primarily in terms of revealed principles of social morality protects the church from a second error, that of indiscriminately approving or disapproving specific movements and organizations and even individuals in the name of authentic Christian action.

In this time of confused principles in national life the Church surrenders moral leadership by supporting isms and temporary movements, instead of conspicuously exhibiting the divinely-revealed principles of social ethics that define human liberty and human duty. Besides the primary duty of evangelizing a lost society, the Church is responsible for upholding the will of God in social life, expressed in biblically revealed principles and values. To endorse particular movements and specific activities in isolation from this primary social orientation cuts the Church adrift from her moorings. Although presuming to represent God and Church, her spokesmen become insensitive to those revealed verities, and even support movements and positions whose attachment to those principles is often obscure and sometimes nonexistent. Certainly the Church must be specific, must not confine social interests to platitudes. The revealed principles of right, however, are never platitudinous; nor is the absolute less absolute because it is neglected and scorned. Revealed principles may illuminate contemporary movements and actions by the pulpit’s use of illustration and example. Always, however, the revealed will of God must predominate and must be the gauge for everything else. Who then dare validate the Church’s permanent endorsement of a movement? (The Church is on the side of the worker rather than of the idler, but is she therefore eternally committed to AFL-CIO? The Church is on the side of the poor and oppressed, but is she therefore committed to a program of government subsidy and a welfare state?)

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In the decline of the American republic the Church will count for little in a rear guard action for national survival unless she returns to the great realities of divine revelation and unless her social message centers in personal regeneration and in fidelity to revealed morality.

Betraying A Heritage

Today influential men are selling the nation’s birthright on every hand. In an official decision in 1955 even a member of the Supreme Court endorsed the denial of absolutes. The Church did little to challenge this assertion of relativity, a theory quite in keeping with the Soviet philosophy of political expedience. In fact, the Church today harbors a theory of knowledge that engenders skepticism over the very existence of revealed truth and principles of right. Neo-orthodox theology has not reversed the modernistic trend that considers revelation as inexpressible in words and propositions.

But absolutes do not cease to be absolutes, imperatives do not cease to be imperatives, because of failure to recognize them as such. Biblical theology and ethics give little credence to the modern notion that God does not articulate permanent principles. Unless the Church accepts her biblical heritage and enunciates the great ethical principles that sustain our tradition of freedom, her own liberties may vanish together with those of the nation she fails. There may not always be a U.S.A., but there will always be a Church. As the believers in Russia can eloquently testify, however, the Church sometimes is chained and imprisoned not alone for her courage to affirm the superiority of spiritual over limited political loyalties, but as penalty also for her silent and unprotesting subjection to the power-state.

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We Quote:


Educator and Journalist

The men who wrote the Constitution of the United States had few conveniences at their disposal. But in two respects, at least, their thinking was greatly superior to that which passes as currency today. They were at home in the field of abstract ideas upon which, much more than upon the production of material wealth, the continuation of the American way of life depends. And they were thoroughly familiar with those eternal truths that alone give a sense of conviction and significance to human existence.—In The Power in the People.

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