I am a first-generation American. My father was born in the north of Ireland. Driven by the poverty of the land, he immigrated to America. Here he found the opportunity to master his trade as a carpenter and earn a decent living.
My mother was born in the north of Italy. She saw no future for herself there, and so at seventeen she came to America to seek a better way of life. She became a traveling companion and a tutor in French and Italian in a wealthy home. She fell in love with a young Irishman and they were married.
One thing was always crystal clear to me: my parents loved America and cherished the freedom and opportunities this land provided. I remember well the day in 1929 when I returned from grade school and saw them holding their heads in their hands and weeping. The Olney National Bank had closed, and except for a small equity in the house and my father’s tools, all they had in the way of financial resources was gone. I can still see that Irish determination on my father’s face as he decided that this was not the end, that he could indeed start over again.
I also remember when sewers were being dug in front of our rowhouse in the northeast section of Philadelphia. The Italian ditch-diggers were my friends, and I often ate lunch with them during those summer days. One day when I came in all covered with mud, my mother said, “Robert, if you want to get ahead in America, somehow you’ve got to get a college education.” That was the first time I had ever heard of a college education. But I entered college in 1937 and was graduated in theology from Princeton in 1943.
It is through this kind of background that I must filter all my thinking about America. I found in my parents and in the opportunities they found here the confidence to believe that America is a land of hope.
Everywhere the prophets of gloom and defeat are raising their voices. It really doesn’t make much difference whether you listen to Walter Cronkite or Huntley and Brinkley, whether you read the National Review, the New Republic, the Wall Street Journal, or the New York Times: the message voiced in different ways is essentially the same. “We are miserable sinners, the country is undone, there is absolutely no hope. All we can do is head for the wailing wall and there confess the sin of being Americans. The affluent society, which has been achieved after centuries of dreams, has now turned into a nightmare, with poverty multiplying, taxes piled upon taxes, uncontrolled inflation, the moral fiber of our people rotting, young people destroying themselves with pot and acid, everyone over thirty years of age shot through with hypocrisy and greed, no national leadership of any kind.” You have read it all and much more. The thing that seems to me to be so unusual about this flagellation is that no hope of any kind is held out except the total restructuring of society by violent means.
There are indeed things in America for which we ought to be ashamed, sins that require confession and repentance. But if we utterly destroy the confidence and moral strength of our people, then this country will be ripe for revolution.
In Europe last summer, I had the privilege of talking with people in high and responsible positions and with people in very ordinary circumstances of life. We talked for hours about America, its image and its influence. I began to examine critically some of the charges that are lodged against us as a people.
The problem of mass starvation arouses the conscience of the civilized world, and especially America. Many seem to think that America has not done all it could in this area. Perhaps we can and should do more, but mass starvation is largely the result of gross overpopulation and the lack of birth control, and of the false aspirations of rising nations. In the great nation of Egypt, the Nile River and the almost perfect climate make possible four complete crops every year. This gives promise that Egypt can again be the granary of the world. But the political leadership of Egypt has decided on a policy of industrialization at the expense of agricultural development. That begins to explain why there is famine in Egypt. We need to tell ourselves that America has done more than any other nation in history in attempting to alleviate starvation through people, money, commodities, and agricultural techniques.
In the complex and unpopular war in which we are involved, the suffering and atrocities beggar description. But it makes my blood boil when just about every world organization, including the World Council of Churches, condemns America for its participation, at the invitation of a sovereign nation, and says nothing about—or offers united praise for—the late Ho Chi Minh and the Communist forces from the North. I think it is about time that we recognize who our enemies are and realize that whatever the outcome may be, the major responsibility for this war rests on the Communist world. Let us stop accepting the guilt for something which we didn’t start but are involved in, and from which, unless there is peace with honor, there will be nothing but tragedy, mounting casualties, and a dollar drain.
Another matter troubling us is the crime on our streets. In vast areas of our cities, both black and white citizens are fearful of walking in their neighborhoods after dark. But 95 per cent of our citizens are not involved in the crime wave that is sweeping America, and I for one am not going to accept guilt for a situation which I didn’t create and for which I have no personal responsibility.
As for America’s race problem and poverty problem, definite progress is being made. In 1961, 22 per cent of all the people in America were listed as living in poverty. In 1969, the figure was 13 per cent. This is a decline of 11 million people. I know full well that this statistic doesn’t help very much if you are part of the 13 per cent living in poverty, but I am sick and tired of being told that we are doing nothing about this great human problem. When 11 million people have been lifted from poverty in less than eight years, we should take heart and get on with the job. The hopefulness of this situation is even more striking in the black community. In 1961, some 56 per cent of our black citizens lived in poverty; today 33 per cent do. That is, 23 per cent of our black neighbors have made a significant economic gain.
Statistics on personal income are encouraging also. White families have a median income of $8,900, black families $5,400. In 1960, there were only 20,000 black families with an income of $15,000 or more a year; today, there are 400,000 who make at least that much and 700,000 who earn $10,000 or more a year. This is real progress. I remind you of these statistical facts, not to whitewash or gloss over the terrible inequities in our land, but to thank God for the tremendous strides we have been able to make as we work together in a common cause.
In an address to a group of young people, one of the men in our congregation said, “There is no such thing as instant success. The problem is that part of our people have been in a long dark tunnel and they now see the light at the end of it and they are in a hurry to get into the sunshine.” This is understandable; but let us remember to thank God that we can see the light at the end.
Or think about the problem of tastes and standards in our literature and motion pictures. For years I have been part of the fight to keep the distribution of obscene books and motion pictures under some kind of control. This is a difficult task at best and almost impossible under the guidelines laid down by the Supreme Court. But we can take heart at the phenomenal sales of a book entitled Good News for Modern Man. This is the New Testament in today’s English, and in less than three years the American Bible Society has sold over 17 million copies. Not all the American people are depraved, as we have often been led to believe.
In Austria last summer I took the “Sound of Music” tour in Salzburg. Many of us have been captivated by the magnificent scenes, the heart-warming story, and the lilting music of this lovely film. Did you know that this motion picture alone will probably gross over $200 million? Add to this the tremendous public response to Mary Poppins and My Fair Lady, and you wonder how Hollywood can be so stupid as to go all out for pornographic filth just to make money. There is an essential decency among our people that responds to wholesomeness in life and entertainment.
Our church, ministering in the heart of a great city, is an oasis for all kinds and conditions of people, especially young people. There is a generally accepted myth that American youth are alienated, misunderstood, lonely, and defiant. But much of their current image has been created by so-called sociological experts who get carried away with their own expertise. For the most part, I find them just people with their fair share of idealism, confusion, independence, and sincerity, and a large measure of impatience with the system.
To call them “the rejected generation” is absurd. Since some of us have failed as parents, we have expended all our energy, time, and talent in the pursuit of financial success. Yet never before have so many parents been informed and concerned—lovingly concerned—about their children. What on earth do our children have to feel rejected about? Too much affluence—perhaps! Too much parental indulgence—perhaps! But it is not fair always and under all conditions to fix the blame for the failure of our children on us as parents. Sure, we have failed, but on a percentage basis we are the most concerned parents in the history of our country.
My purpose is not to hand out rose-colored glasses so that we can tell ourselves to believe that God is in his heaven and all’s right with the world. God is in his heaven, but all is not right with the world. The world lives under the power of the Prince of Darkness. All I am pleading for is an honest reading of the record. That record, despite all its blemishes, is an encouraging one.
The thing that really disappoints me is the lack of understanding and appreciation for the American dream. America is composed of sinful human beings, and it has its faults and shortcomings; but they seem less significant when viewed alongside the accomplishments and fulfillment of the American way. There is a theme in our national heritage that can cause us to walk together to the music of distant drums. Bancroft, the historian, commenting on the Mayflower Compact signed on that tiny boat off the Massachusetts coast, said that in the opening words, “In the Name of God, Amen,” lay the birthplace of constitutional liberty. So the hope of constitutional liberty awaits fulfillment at a time when the words of Martin Luther King—“I have a dream that some day my four children may be judged not by the color of their skin but by their character”—will be realized for every citizen of this great land.
I say that this dream of the larger life for every man can be realized in America, and that the Christian faith has a significant part to play in its fulfillment. At a meeting in New York last year Billy Graham told of a conversation with a leading theoretician of the new left. This radical leader said, “Within five years we shall have either revolution or dictatorship.” “Can anything stop it?” Graham asked. “Only one thing can stop it, and that is a religious awakening.”
I do not know in what new direction the Holy Spirit will lead the Church, but I do know that the Christian faith speaks with relevance and power in the area of heart, mind, and actions.
We have faced difficult times in American history before. When Washington was at Valley Forge, the future of our country seemed to be in grave jeopardy. A third of Washington’s men had deserted, a third died from malnutrition, and only a scant third were left who were able-bodied. Yet in the snows of that incredible winter, prayers were answered, and out of the travail came the victory of the American Revolution. What could have seemed more hopeless than America’s plight during the Civil War, when brother was fighting brother and hate and distrust engulfed the country? But time after time Lincoln and his cabinet turned to God and, believing they had found his purpose for this country, they endured and the nation was saved.
In 1955, President Eisenhower gave an address with this theme: “The history of free men is never really written by chance but by choice.” President Nixon has reminded us that our basic problem is a crisis of the spirit. Christianity was designed for just such a crisis. Eight hundred years before Jesus was born, God spoke through the Prophet Joel: “It shall come to pass afterward that I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh; and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, your old men shall dream dreams, your young men shall see visions … and it shall come to pass, that whosoever shall call on the name of the Lord shall be delivered …” (Joel 2:28, 32). There was a partial fulfillment of this great promise in the Pentecost experience of the Church. But the emphasis of true faith is never exclusively on what God did; it is always concerned with what God does now. There will be a great fulfillment of this truth in the days immediately preceding the second coming of Jesus Christ to judge the world. But in a very real sense this promise of the pouring out of God’s Spirit upon men so that they shall be able to see visions and dream dreams is available to all who believe. And it is everlastingly true, thank God, that “whosoever shall call on the name of the Lord shall be delivered.”
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