It is not unusual these days in America to find a Christian waxing sentimental about his country and his flag. Events of the past five decades have convinced us that the American dream is made of very precious stuff indeed. What is really unusual is to find an American waxing eloquent about his Christian roots.
In 1799 Jedidiah Morse of New England wrote, “Whenever the pillars of Christianity shall be overthrown, our present republican forms of government, and all the blessings which flow from them, must fall with them.” Today as tourists stroll the avenues of Washington, D. C., “sightseeing capital of the world,” and study its magnificent edifices and marble monuments, the words of Morse seem to be an anachronism. The structure of our expanding Big Government appears in sooth to be eternal. Can one seriously support today the thesis that democracy’s survival is contingent upon some sectarian religious belief? Is not this bigotry carried to the ultimate?
When modern statisticians claim that the percentage of church membership is higher in America today than it was in Colonial times, they are clouding the scene by throwing squid’s ink. The fact is that our forefathers held an idea completely lost to a vast segment of our society today. It may be found simply stated by the Psalmist: “Blessed is the nation whose God is the Lord.”
“I don’t know how long America will be here,” observed Dr. Louis H. Evans recently. “As long as it is a servant of Jehovah, surely. After that it simply moves on the chessboard of history. We may have stronger guns than Russia, but we no longer have stronger goals than Russia. Not what we have in our hearts but only what we have in our hands is now our strength; and if we are overpowered there, we have nothing.”
In an effort to explicate the nature of the American dream, as well as its drift and its destiny, CHRISTIANITY TODAY has asked some well-known historians to present their views on these pages. Is a pagan concept of man and government now finding general acceptance even in the United States? Is it true that no one much cares whether God has this land or any other in his protection or not?
We are convinced that a scarlet thread runs through the story of democracy, beginning with the Decalogue on Mount Sinai and the teachings of the New Testament, and moving through the German and Swiss Reformations to England. Wycliffe, John Locke, Black-stone, the Petition of Rights, the Bill of Rights all are knots on that thread. So are Jamestown and Plymouth and Philadelphia. Notice, however, that these are not the names of warriors or of battlefields. The real victories have always been God’s through his conquest of the rebellious human heart. “If we will not be governed by God,” said William Penn, “then we will be governed by tyrants.” The man set free by Jesus Christ is the real hero of this Fourth of July.
Dr. Robert Boyd Munger, on his recent return from a preaching mission in Latin America, declared that “the intoxicating ideas of liberty, equality, and freedom, so long proclaimed by Americans as inalienable rights, are burning like fire in the hearts of the underprivileged.” Adds Dr. Munger, “The unrest does not have its rise primarily in propaganda from Moscow, but rather in explosive pressure on the part of the common man and the little nations, demanding that they be permitted to stand among their brethren without shame, politically and economically free. Certainly the long-delayed revolt of the disinherited masses is underway.
“Yet even more revolutionary in its effects is the gospel of Jesus Christ, declaring the worth of the individual to God and the length he has gone to reach and redeem him. No man who has been set free spiritually from sin and death is content to remain socially in bondage, nor can he tolerate the oppression of those for whom Christ died.”
God can create in us a new heart and set for us a new goal. God can give America the will and the heart to serve mankind in the twentieth century.
There is no three-mile limit to the American dream.
May this be our earnest prayer on Independence Day, 1961: “Lord, send us a vision worthy of Thyself. Let it be that vision bequeathed to our forefathers, but let it be for all men—not to enslave, not to exploit, but to set free!” For without the vision of God and his will, and a dedication to righteousness, the people perish.
THE SIDE OF LIBERTY-LOVING MEN
For a century and a half the spirit of 1776 was the picture of America held by most thinking people the world over. It was represented by the three Revolutionary soldiers with fife and drum: men of courage and conviction, wholly committed to the cause of human freedom. Americans believed in the dignity of man, endowed by the Creator with natural rights. Therefore they were willing to sacrifice themselves for the downfall and destruction of tyranny of any kind—political, economic, social, ecclesiastical.
But that image of America has become badly defaced. Communists have caricatured the American image by clever and diabolical deceit. Now Uncle Sam is pictured as Uncle Shylock, a Mr. Moneybags, wealthy, greedy, disinterested in the welfare of struggling masses of humanity in other lands. America is made out to be callous, careless, even cruel and cunning. Despite every program such as the Marshall Plan, Point Four, and others, American aid is suspiciously viewed as a potential instrument of “Yankee imperialism.”
Does not America now often appear to support the status quo? American foreign policy favors aristocratic classes and the static Roman church in Latin America. Until recently, America seemed on the side of decadent European imperialism in Africa and Asia. Have Americans forgotten their heritage of freedom? Are they no longer champions of human liberty?
The Communists express concern for illiterate and inchoate masses. All the while their program is one of ultimate dictatorship, an imperialism far more destructive of human rights than anything the peoples of Africa and Asia have ever known.
America’s true image must be restored.
And it can be.
It will take courageous statesmanship and solid support from the American people to be on the side of liberty-loving men the world over.
Our part is to be genuine, sincere, and forthright in our quest for domestic freedom both for ourselves and for the masses abroad, and accordingly to unmask the cruelty and covetousness of the conspirators in the Kremlin.
—DR. V. RAYMOND EDMAN,
Wheaton College, Wheaton, Illinois.
STRONG PROSPECT OF DOOM
The United States of America in the past 50 years has been dominated to a large extent by persons who do not understand the spiritual heritage bequeathed by their own ancestors. When our great nation was founded during the period from 1775 to 1787, the following statement by Benjamin Franklin was still widely accepted: “The longer I live, the more convincing proofs I see of this truth, that God governs in the affairs of man.”
But in recent years our leading statesmen seldom have recognized in official speeches and documents the nature of divine Providence.
In our public schools in many parts of the land it has become fashionable to undermine respect for orthodox Christianity. The evolutionary concept of human history has crept into nearly all the textbooks being used in the big survey courses, including those given in our Christian universities and colleges.
The existence of Adam and Eve is usually overlooked, and as a result practically all the boys and girls coming from fine Christian homes are informed in their textbooks dealing with the history of civilization that the best monkeys called apes in their own power turned themselves into human beings. In this subtle manner the chief basis of the Christian religion is discarded: the atonement of Jesus Christ is no longer needed by a single human being.
Is it any wonder that in such a time and situation our leading newspapers cater to the whims of pagans and infidels? The most highly touted historian in the world (Arnold J. Toynbee) has recently stated in The New York Times that Christianity and Mohammedanism are both children “of a spiritual marriage between Greece and Asia.” Unless a marked change takes place in the United States of America, it is doomed, just as surely as was ancient Babylonia—DR. ALBERT HYMA, Professor of History, The University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, Michigan.
GODLY POWER OF A MINORITY
The American dream is best expressed succinctly in Lincoln’s Gettysburg address, in the Latin inscription on the Great Seal of the United States which we find on every dollar bill, and in America and America the Beautiful. It goes back to minorities—and they were always minorities—in the early settlements in this country. It is clearly of Christian—and of Protestant—origin, and is based on the conviction that God who revealed himself in Christ is central in history and has his purposes for this country. America was written by a Baptist theological student and America the Beautiful by the daughter and granddaughter of Congregational ministers.
The dream has never fully shaped American life, but it has helped to mold the democracy of the country and, among many other fruits, has contributed to the anti-slavery movement, the temperance and prohibition campaigns, the achievement of a more equitable position for women, improved care for the insane, and efforts for international peace, including the League of Nations and its successor, the United Nations.
The dream is still with us. As has always been true, it is cherished in its frankly Christian form only by minorities, but those minorities still make their influence felt in the nation, both in its international outreach and in its domestic affairs. Even though its Christian rootage is not always recognized or acknowledged, it is probably as potent as it has ever been. We who are indebted to it and cherish it must endeavor to see that it helps to shape every aspect of our local and national policies and programs.—DR. KENNETH S. LATOURETTE, Sterling Professor Emeritus of Missions and Oriental History, Yale University Graduate School, New Haven, Connecticut.
COMPROMISE AND DECADENCE
The American dream is vanishing in the midst of the terrifying realities and visible signs of decadence in our contemporary society. But it would be false to infer that the crisis of the present is the cause of its disappearance as a vital factor in American life.
The dream itself was built on an unstable foundation, for it did not emanate fully from that biblical outlook which guided colonial life. There was a colonial dream for the New World which the colonists brought with them as a part of their heritage from the Reformation, and which motivated them as they forged a new civilization out of the wilderness. It was their desire to found a society which would be based on biblical principles.
But this colonial dream of the early settlers with its biblical orientation gave way before the onslaughts of the Enlightenment and the rise of the democratic philosophy of the American Revolution. Out of the War of Independence there arose a new American dream whose chief architects were Thomas Jefferson and Thomas Paine. This American dream was not derived from biblical principles, but reflected the naturalism and humanism of deism and the emerging democratic philosophy. Thus it contained the elements making for its own dissolution. For it was based on an optimistic view concerning the nature of man and a belief in the perfectibility of the race. Not only was it unbiblical, but at the same time it encouraged a type of political, social, and economic action which could only hasten the destruction of any society which accepted these false views.
At first glance the democratic insistence on the equality of all men may seem to be little more than a political and social expression of the biblical doctrine of the priesthood of the believer. But such is far from the case. Underlying the democratic philosophy is the humanistic insistence on man’s sovereignty and inherent goodness.
The crisis which has overtaken not only the United States but Western Europe is but the unfolding of the catastrophic nature of the Enlightenment of which the American dream soon became the offspring. The awesome conflicts of our era are not the cause of the dilemma, but rather are they the outward manifestation of the deadly cancer which is in fact eating away the very soul of the West.
—DR. C. GREGG SINGER,
Professor of History,
Catawba College, Salisbury, North Carolina.
THE RIGHT TO HOPE
The American dream has perhaps never been better expressed than it was almost a century ago by Abraham Lincoln in his Message to Congress on December 1, 1862. He concluded with these words: “We shall nobly save, or meanly lose, the last best, hope of earth.”
In a very real sense it is within the power of every generation—not the least our own—either to preserve or squander this rich heritage of freedom which is so much a part of the American dream.
Americans have given much thought in recent months to the question of their National Purpose. What has not as yet been demonstrated is whether we as a people are prepared to approach our problems and explore our purposes in a spirit of humility and self-criticism which is certainly essential to greatness and may be equally necessary to survival. Those of us in the Christian tradition ought never to lose sight of the fact that good and desirable as are many aspects of our official policy, both stated and implied, “there has been a difference of purpose between the Almighty and them.” Vox populi is not always vox dei, but “where there is no vision the people perish.”
Only if we see the American dream clearly in the light of God’s love, his power and his judgment, do we have a right to hope, with Lincoln, that this nation under God may yet experience a new birth of freedom, with the result that government of the people, by the people, and for the people may not perish from the earth.
—DR. ROBERT M. SUTTON,
Associate Dean and Associate Professor of History,
the Graduate College, University of Illinois.
SIGNS OF A RENEWAL
The American dream and the destiny implied in it have received official and secular expression in such documents as the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and the Gettysburg Address. Though expressed in secular terms, they were of Christian origin and nurture.
Our national destiny has been and is threatened by secularism, but there are signs of a return to biblical evangelical Christianity which is the fountainhead of democracy and without which democracy is distorted. The return to such Christianity, however, must not be on the theological level alone but must be brought to bear on the racial, social, and international issues which confront us.
The people of the nation, instructed and inspired by Christian leadership rooted in Scripture and Church, must overcome racial discrimination in spite of welfare state tags and charges of socialism, must understand and assist foreign peoples on the Christian ground that we are our brothers’ keeper, and must not allow theories of national sovereignty to block constructive efforts at building the kind of world in which order and justice can prevail.
If the American dream is for Americans only, it will remain our dream and never be our destiny. Will we have the courage to see this and act accordingly, in spite of foreign and domestic enemies? There is a chance that we will and be counted among those who really hunger and thirst after righteousness even when we are persecuted for it.
—Dr. RENE DE VISME WILLIAMSON,
Chairman, Department of Government,
Louisiana State University.
THE AMERICAN PEOPLE stress the indispensable role of public information and education if republican forms of government are to thrive.
Yet, strange as it may seem, few Americans today really grasp either the distinctive political premises that have nourished the nation, or the religious and moral ideals inherent in the American vision.
Writing on April 25, 1799, Jedidiah Morse spoke pointedly of the spiritual foundations: “In proportion as the genuine effects of Christianity are diminished in any nation, either through unbelief, or the corruption of its doctrines, or the neglect of its institutions, in the same proportion will the people of that nation recede from the blessings of genuine freedom, and approximate the miseries of complete despotism. I hold this to be a truth confirmed by experience.… Whenever the pillars of Christianity shall be overthrown, our present republican forms of government, and all the blessings which flow from them, must fall with them.”
Have something to add about this? See something we missed? Share your feedback here.
Subscribe to Christianity Today and get access to this article plus 65+ years of archives.
- Home delivery of CT magazine
- Complete access to articles on ChristianityToday.com
- Over 120 years of magazine archives plus full access to all of CT’s online archives
- Learn more