America is in the doldrums politically, morally, and spiritually. That fact is being brought home to us from all directions and can hardly be missed by anyone who has eyes to see and ears to hear. Philip E. Jacob’s Changing Values in College for the academic world, William H. Whyte’s The Organization Man for the business world, Eugene Kinkead’s In Every War But One for the military world, and many other sources all point to the same low condition: conformity without conviction, ignorance of the most basic values of the American way of life, unconcern for one’s neighbor disguised under the name of tolerance. The political aspects of this condition are only too evident. Domestically we are without sense of direction or purpose. Internationally we are respected for our power but not for our ideals, and all the dynamism in this rapidly changing world lies with our ruthless and dedicated Communist adversaries. Threatened by lack of vitality inside and aggression outside, American democracy is in a critical condition.
How is it possible that our country with its vast natural resources, its large and educated population, its immense technological know-how, its stupendous economic power, its military competence demonstrated in two world wars, and its democratic and stable constitutional system could find itself in such a dreadful predicament? I submit that the answer lies with the progressive secularization of our national life which has eroded away much of the Christian foundation upon which American democracy was laid, upon which American democracy depends for its vitality and proper functioning, and without which we cannot successfully compete with Communists for the minds, hearts, and souls of the peoples who live behind the Iron Curtain and in the uncommitted parts of the world.
In the universally accepted Western sense, democracy means self-government, and self-government is expressed through majority rule for the common good and within the limits of minority rights and accepted constitutional procedures. Some political scientists might want to argue a little over some of the terminology used in this definition, but I know of none who would deny that it is correct enough in substance. Although this definition is a secular one, it has important theological presuppositions, and it is a serious indictment of the political science profession and of social scientists generally that they have been unaware of the existence of these presuppositions. The omission is the natural consequence of a secular education in an increasingly secularized society. Through textbooks, treatises, articles in learned journals, and classroom lectures, this omission is perpetuated and transmitted to the next generation of students, teachers, and practitioners of politics. As a result our explanations of democracy are inadequate and defenses unconvincing.
The Self At The Crossroads
When we speak of self-government, does it make any difference what kind of a “self” is doing the governing? This is a question which is seldom, if ever, asked by political scientists and politicians. Under the influence of social Darwinism with its key concept of the survival of the fittest, they have made national survival a matter of power pure and simple. It did not occur to them that perhaps some of these nations might not be fit to live. Even Woodrow Wilson, though he was a good Presbyterian and should have known better, did not ask it when he proclaimed his doctrine of national self-determination. Today this has become the most fundamental question in international relations, and the very survival of mankind depends upon it. The nearest public recognition of its importance is that provision of the United Nations Charter which limits membership in the U. N. to “peace-loving states,” and we know only too well that this provision is an aspiration and not a description. We faced this question in the reconstruction of Germany, Italy, and Japan after World War II. It confronts us every time a new state like Ghana and Guinea takes its place in the so-called “family of nations.” Like individuals, nations live by faith, and there are faiths like communism and fascism which are a threat to the world. To defeat them on the field of battle is sometimes impossible and sometimes too costly, but coexistence with them can give us a peace which is at best precarious and short.
Is there any way out of this dilemma? There is, and it can be summarized in one word: conversion. We must carry out the Great Commission. We must turn to Him who can make all things new and regenerate individuals and nations, for we are fast approaching the condition of widespread corruption and violence which was punished by the Flood. God is still a righteous God as in Old Testament times, and we may well be facing destruction once more, this time by the fire of nuclear energy. Like the ancient kingdoms of Israel and Judah and the ancient empires of Assyria and Babylon, all nations stand under divine judgment in spite of the modern—and pagan—notion that self-preservation is the first law of life. The first law of life should be restated thus: Whoever (whether individual or nation) would save his life shall lose it, and whoever would lose his life for Christ’s sake shall find it again.
The Spiritual Is Practical
Many people will object that this solution to our dilemma is impractical and far removed from the realities of world power politics. The objection is not well taken. What could be more impractical than building a democratic world order with Communist or Fascist member-states, or writing peace treaties if the signatories have no respect for the sanctity of engagements, or expecting a real public spirit from selfish and anti-social people, or trying to establish a regime of law among people who are not law-abiding? Political science is not creative but manipulative, and it is limited in its effectiveness by the defects of the human materials available to it. Reform depends on reformation, and the missionary must precede the statesman. Our real alternative, therefore, is this: convert your adversaries or perish with them.
We cannot bring the Gospel to other nations by putting ourselves in the position of the Pharisee unless we recognize our own unworthiness and emphasize that our message is not ours in the sense of something we have figured out of our own experience but of something which we hold by revelation from God through Christ and which we can communicate only under the direction of the Holy Spirit. We cannot take credit for the Gospel without becoming unjustifiedly and offensively self-righteous, thereby alienating others who will derive their idea of Christianity from the word of man instead of the Word of God and take us instead of Christ as the standard.
It is also necessary that we rededicate ourselves to the Gospel in order that our national life shall truly reflect the principles and the spirit of Christianity, for we too stand under divine judgment. Genesis makes it clear that sin (that is, alienation from God and therefore from man) lies at the heart of the problem. The meaning of sin in our national life is only too evident in our racial, class, and sectional conflicts. The solution requires, of course, that justice be done. But justice is not enough. The victory of unrighteous people over other unrighteous people, even in the name of righteousness, can result only in grief and greater evil. Reconciliation, which includes justice but goes far beyond it, is the Christian’s fundamental objective. The connection with American democracy is obvious because reconciliation is the prerequisite of community, and without community no democracy is possible.
The Lost Sense Of Guilt
Reconciliation is difficult in our society because secularism has all but wiped out the concept of guilt. Much is said about the deleterious psychological and social effects of a sense of guilt, but little about guilt itself because so many people do not believe in it. We have pretty well relegated guilt to criminal court proceedings where even the crassest relativist is forced to recognize it. What we are doing is to blame the symptoms and ignore the cause. Is it any wonder that a cure is not forthcoming? Only he who has caught a vision of God in his perfection, or has had a personal encounter with the radiant figure of Christ, or has measured himself in the light of the stringent standard of the Ten Commandments or the exacting requirements of the Sermon on the Mount can see something of the full extent of his sinfulness and therefore his guilt. Without an experience of this kind, it is impossible to know the meaning of guilt, however much we may suffer the consequences. It is one of the most insidious and devastating effects of secularism that it makes this kind of experience uncommon.
A Plea For Recovery
The survival of American democracy is thus intimately and inextricably bound up with the teachings of the Bible concerning sin and reconciliation because of the bearing of these teachings on the problem of community. Majority rule and minority acquiescence are morally valid and politically feasible only in community. Let community be destroyed, and they forthwith degenerate into a mere contest of strength. Moreover, majority rule in the United States is possible (and constitutional) only through representation. Here again Christianity is vitally involved since the quality of the candidates who are willing to run for office and to serve in it is religiously conditioned and the competence of the voters in recognizing quality is likewise religiously conditioned. Finally, what a man can accomplish in office is again conditioned by the same spiritual insight in himself and in those who elected him. Nations rise and fall with their spiritual level.
The only conclusion I can reach, therefore, is that the survival and proper functioning of American democracy demand a return to a truly evangelical Christianity nurtured in biblical truths, committed to Christ, and responsive to the guidance of the Holy Spirit. Such a return will give meaning and purpose to our nation, revitalize our democracy to the point where it will become attractive to the uncommitted peoples of the world, and supply us with the power to overcome Communist power. We must learn once more that money, political power, military force, and national prestige are only tools. Men and nations must use them but cannot live by them. The deepest level of existence is spiritual, and it is on that level that both the moral right and the actual ability to survive and to grow are determined. The political task of Christian statesmanship to which this basic truth points was concisely stated by a great evangelical Protestant, John Milton, in these words: “To make the people fittest to choose, and the chosen fittest to govern.…” (The Ready and Easy Way to Establish a Free Commonwealth.)
Rene de Visme Williamson has been Professor of Government at Louisiana State University since 1954, and is now Chairman of the Department of Government there. He holds the A.B. from Rutgers University, A.M. and Ph.D. from Harvard. He has served on the faculty of Princeton University, Davidson College, Beloit College, and Univ. of Tennessee.
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