In a final address to the people whom he had served for 45 years, the man most responsible for founding the United States offered wise counsel to the fledgling nation for its future. With regard to those things which he felt vital to continuance in freedom, George Washington set forth his views plainly and then commented:
I dare not hope they will make the strong and lasting expression I could wish—that they will control the usual current of the passions, or prevent our nation from running the course which has hitherto marked the destiny of nations.
Yet President Washington nonetheless hoped that his counsel would be “productive of some partial benefit, some occasional good.…”
Scores of nations have appeared on the horizon of history, run their course, and disappeared. Some lived only briefly, glimmering like pale stars against the darkness of the past. Others, comet-like, have shot across recorded time, lighting the known world while they lived and leaving a glow to light the way for some which followed. The many ran their course. A few remained. And down that stream of recorded time, the scattered light was gathered and summed up in one great idealistic burst:
We hold these truths to be self-evident: That all men are created equal; that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights; that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. That, to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.
A NEW AND VITAL CONCEPT
Here was a startling and revolutionary new concept—a concept that has echoed and reverberated for the 185 years just past. Since it was proclaimed across the world on that hot July day, it has rocked empires, dethroned kings, and shattered tyrannies. For those few words encompass the essentials of human liberty. Here man stands equal before the law. Here he is given equality in rights and privileges. Here is denied the right of any man to govern another by reason of birth or by virtue of inherited rank. And here it is proclaimed that those rights which are basic to an ordered, free society cannot be taken from the individual by that society unless it be as punishment for crime.
This is the great credo which forms the basis of American political freedom. And this credo is wholly of the spirit. At this Nation’s beginning, in the very first words of the Declaration, a Power greater than man’s is acknowledged—a Supernatural Power which is the source of our existing moral codes. “Men,” says the Declaration of Independence, “are created.…” This presupposes a Creator—indeed, One who is acknowledged in the same breath. Here, then, is the key contradiction in the two major ideologies now clashing throughout the whole world.
THE CLASH OF IDEOLOGIES
Man, says the Declaration of Independence, was created by God. No, says communism, man is merely a fortuitous product of the ceaseless interaction of chemical and physical elements—he has no soul. And, communism continues, nature is all—there is no God. Proletarian utility constitutes the only acceptable moral code—the end justifies the means. The Ten Commandments, says communism, are wholly false as they are derived from supernatural concepts which have no basis in fact.
Today’s great struggle, in simple terms, relates to the nature of God and the nature of man. Man, says one ideology, is a spiritual creature with an immortal soul. On the contrary, says the other ideology, he is a material creature in a material world.
OUR MOMENT OF HISTORY
Which ideology will triumph? No man can know. Nor can any one of us stand far out on some periphery of time and place and judge the point which our Nation has reached in “running the course which has hitherto marked the destiny of nations.”
On this 185th birthday of our independence the question arises, is the brief period of our past more than a magnificent beginning? Or does it perhaps encompass the major portion of our history as a free Nation? Have we started arching out along the downward curve of destiny which has marked the beginning of the end for so many civilizations? Or are we now moving forward to an infinitely prolonged and even greater future?
SIGNALS OF IMPENDING DANGER
I repeat, no man can know the course that destiny has decreed, but there are signs that free men will ignore only at peril to their freedom. But before we consider those signals of impending danger to our future, let us look again at our beginnings and the future which the Father of his Country envisioned for us. He spoke of his unceasing wishes:
.… that Heaven may continue to you the choicest tokens of its beneficence—that your union and brotherly affection may be perpetual—that the free constitution which is the work of your hands may be sacredly maintained—that its administration in every deparment may be stamped with wisdom and virtue—that, in fine, the happiness of the people of these States, under the auspices of liberty, may be made complete, by so careful a preservation, and so prudent a use of this blessing, as will acquire to them the glory of recommending it to the applause, the affection, and adoption of every nation which is yet a stranger to it.
George Washington offered for solemn contemplation and recommended for frequent review certain sentiments which he indicated were the result of much thought and observation, and “which appear to me all-important to the permanency of your felicity as a people.”
What was the counsel he offered? Washington warned against permanent alliance with foreign powers, partiality toward a favorite nation, big public debt, a large military establishment, and the activities of a “small but artful and enterprising minority” designed to change or control government. He warned against any change in the Constitution by usurpation. He stressed the great need for enlightened public opinion. And, with a certainty that was unequivocal, he said:
Of all the dispositions and habits which lead to political prosperity, Religion and Morality are indispensable supports. In vain would that man claim the tributes of PATRIOTISM, who should labor to subvert these great pillars of human happiness, these firmest props of the duties of men and citizens.…
THE INDISPENSABLE SUPPORTS
Good men of varying political persuasions may question with utmost sincerity the soundness of some portions of Washington’s counsel in terms of our contemporary world. Others may hold adherence to each word of that counsel to be as vital to our freedom now as it was on that mid-September day of 1796 when the address was first delivered. But can any thoughtful man ignore those two “indispensable supports” of which our first President spoke?
He cannot do so without discounting the two most vital stones in the foundation of American freedom, for our freedom rests on a basis that is spiritual and idealistic—and is so acknowledged in the first words of the Declaration of Independence.
The greatness of America is spiritual in origin. The broad material achievements which we enjoy today stem largely from vision born of faith, sustained by unshakable resolution, and supported by unceasing effort. We drink today from a vast reservoir of spiritual strength which we inherited. But that reservoir is not fathomless. It must be constantly replenished if the spiritual soul of America is to survive as a legacy to future generations.
ONSLAUGHT OF SECULARISM
Today, the forces of materialism are directing their most concentrated power against the very wellsprings of our strength. The forward march of secularism is visible in many areas. It is apparent in much of what we read and much of what we view. The promotion of the sensual seems to be the purpose of whole shelves of books and magazines. On every hand, deliberate pandering to the lower instincts is apparent. Innuendo permeates once wholesome publications. Movie ads and paperbacks flaunt violence and sexuality. Sex, brutality, and sadism are too often emphasized unduly on both television and movie screens. Moral degenerates spew forth a surreptitious torrent of outright obscenity in the form of films, playing cards, comic books, paperbacks, and pictures.
There are many other less direct and visible evidences of rampant materialism. Indifference and apathy to violations of the law are commonplace. News columns reflect instance after instance in which respected community leaders have betrayed their trust and of union members who have been betrayed by their leaders. Again and again one reads of advertising which is termed false and misleading and we are forced to conclude that increasing numbers of men and women are losing their sense of values.
The Church itself is not immune from the onslaught of the secular. Certainly, the nominal Christian sect has every opportunity to follow the cross of Christ, and the individual never before has encountered equal opportunity for exposure to Christianity. Scores of church spires rise against the skies. The New Testament is readily available. Yet, with every opportunity for absorbing His superb lessons, how many Americans have been exposed—adequately and meaningfully—to the actual teachings of Christ?
We are today threatened by twin menaces. Materialism has fathered both crime and communism. The criminal statistics for the year just past attest to the steady growth of the one evil. The progress of the other—and the intensity of the struggle in which we are engaged with it—does not yield to such forthright measure.
A preliminary annual crime report for the year just past is most disquieting. It should be noted that the year 1959 set an all-time new high in recorded crime volume. This, however, was exceeded in 1960 with a 12 per cent increase in reporting cities of more than 25,000 population. Even more frightening is the increase in the volume of youth crime. Youthful criminality in rural areas during the year just past showed a five per cent increase over 1959. Juvenile crime volume in small cities increased by five per cent and in large cities by seven per cent during 1960 over the prior year.
Behind these tragic figures hovers the materialism of moral decadence as it is reflected in the disintegration of homes and in rising rates of illegitimate births.
All these are danger signals to which free men interested in the preservation of their freedom must pay heed. Nor can Americans ignore the increasing pressures of atheistic communism and impunity. Until the individual citizen develops a clear understanding of the true nature of the Communist conspiracy—as well as the means used to advance that evil conspiracy—he is helpless to combat it effectively.
The dangers to America are great, yet they are by no means overwhelming. There are, on every hand, stirrings among youth which indicate an awakening to danger. Youthful Americans, on a growing scale, appear to be rallying to the magnificent standards which, in the past, guided this Nation to greatness. Collectivist doctrines cease to advance as knowledge strips away their false appeal. A new generation seems determined to seek a real understanding of the dynamic principles on which our Constitution is based, and which have thrust our Republic thus far so splendidly along its course.
The unique mold which created us as Americans has not been broken. We still have that “lively faith in the perfectibility of man” which de Tocqueville found to be so striking an aspect of American character. We have made many errors but I believe we can summon the knowledge, the power, and the will to correct those errors. We need to look in the mirror of our past rather than in one deliberately warped by the propaganda of a purposeful enemy to see—and create—the image of ourselves as true offspring of our spiritual fathers. We need to keep in mind the thought expressed by an author, no longer living, to the effect that a man, a nation, or an age grows, develops, and becomes strong or declines and dies in proportion to the spiritual content of each.
There are unquestionable weaknesses in America’s spiritual armor on this 185th birthday of our Nation, but they are not irreparable ones. This is an age of uncertainty, but it is possible to recapture the faith which motivated our forefathers. We need to renew our allegiance to the ideals for which the Founding Fathers so willingly placed life and fortune in jeopardy. We need to rededicate ourselves to the preservation of their great dream. In doing these things, we can insure that the years of America’s past are but the beginning on the long course she has yet to run.
Marriage … in Honor
To each other and to Thee we cling,
Through fiery sword and under Eden’s tree,
Where sight at last may full possession bring—
Where sound and taste and smell and touch are free.
Longing, yearning, reaching, we abide,
Rapt inside th’ eternal, transfix’d moment:
To hasten, hold, and gently set aside.
O God, from Thee our life and love is sent.
In beauty’s overwhelming act we view
Thy greater passion and forgiveness,
Self-giving Christ; beyond all legal due
Is joy triumphant, and eternal rest.
A. O. R.
Samuel M. Shoemaker is the author of a number of popular books and the gifted Rector of Calvary Episcopal Church in Pittsburgh. He is known for his effective leadership of laymen and his deeply spiritual approach to all vital issues.
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