The gravest error of the twentieth century is not its bellicosity, or its fecundity, or its bigotry. Humanly speaking, our century’s gravest mistake is its neglect of the individual man. Whether the world’s population be six billion or sixty billion, God has made each one of us in his image, and each of us is of infinite importance to him. Therefore, while I recognize the implications of automation and the problems of dealing with large blocs of people in an increasingly complex social structure, I take umbrage at the collectivist spirit that I see growing on both sides of the Iron Curtain. I am sickened by the contemptuous way it treats the individual.

The herd-like, subservient attitude of millions of people toward their socialist governments is pitiful. It is a false patriotism, because it is built on a domesticated psychology that destroys the far-ranging human spirit. It also has an unsound philosophical base, because behind the collectivist spirit is a doctrine of perfectionism untrue to the facts of human nature.

Orwell’s book 1984 correctly shows what happens when Big Brother government takes over completely. When the power structures find that men will not really conform, in spite of all the brainwashing, then they undertake to make them conform. And we have learned to our sorrow that there is no tyranny like a socialist tyranny.

Twenty years ago Time magazine defined Soviet Communism as simply a technique for gaining and keeping power. It would be hard to discover a better definition. We read in Proverbs, “When the righteous are in authority, the people rejoice; but when the wicked beareth rule, the people mourn.” Today hundreds of millions are in secret or public mourning.

Recently it was reported that in Burma all education of the young has been taken over by the government. Some sixty Roman Catholic schools, sixteen Baptist schools, and many others were affected. The same thing has already happened in Iran, Egypt, Ceylon, Sudan, and many other countries. We who work for Christian journals are all too aware of the drift of government in places where we are supporting missions. It is not a question of whether we like it or not. It is here. The tentacles of government control now make it impossible for a man to come to Christ in India or Algeria, for example, without registering that eternal fact at the local police station.

Against this background, we see in the United States a great and significant difference. In contrast to those in many countries on many continents, you and I have an important say in the choice of a government. Our highest offices are elective. The men we choose are the men whose policies control us. If enough of us do not like them, we can, by joint action, get rid of them.

Article continues below

Now whenever the men at the top do something that I approve of, such as sending troops to Da Nang or expediting voter registration in areas where there is local obstruction, then I consider that the federal government is discharging its duties properly. But whenever they do something that I do not approve of, such as making spineless court decisions on obscenity, or sabotaging prayer in the public schools, then I tend to look upon the federal government as an interfering monster. These are my private ad hoc opinions as a citizen. I should hardly expect everyone to agree.

The State As Servant

The most significant contribution of America to political theory is not a perfectly functioning government but the importance America attaches to the rights of the individual voter. An American does not belong to the government; the government belongs to him. He is not the state’s servant; the state is his servant. This is the heritage we received from our Puritan forebears—Englishmen such as Pym, Hampden, Selden, and Sir John Eliot, who carried on their struggle with the Stuart kings, James I and Charles I. These Englishmen were civil servants, members of Parliament; yet they wrested the scepter of authority away from a dynasty of monarchs who seemed determined to rule as despots.

As a matter of fact, Great Britain has bequeathed us the right to trial by jury, free citizenship, the presumption of innocence until we are proved guilty, habeas corpus, the Roman principle of accusatio by which a man must be charged only in the presence of his accusers, and the two-party system. To these we added our Bill of Rights, with freedom of speech and press, church-state separation and freedom of religion, and other rights Americans enjoy. We developed a system of governmental checks and balances, based ultimately on James Madison’s understanding of the doctrine of original sin, which he learned under John Witherspoon at the College of New Jersey (now Princeton).

The real issue before us, then, is not the growing role of government in our lives. True, there are the encroachments of the federal-aid-to-education legislation, Medicare, tightening municipal building ordinances, housing acts, mounting property taxes, restrictions on travel, and all the rest. Much of this is unfortunately necessary. But the real issue is still what is happening to the citizen himself.

Article continues below

The moment the average American loses the concept that the government belongs to him—that he is its creator under God, not its beneficiary object under the state—he has lost his country. The American distinctives will not be lost through Caribbean revolutions, although these are an increasingly live danger; they will not be lost through Communist infiltration of positions of national importance, although this, too, is an extremely serious menace. But they will be lost if Americans forget that the government belongs to them.

The dignity of the American citizen himself is all important. Is he going to become just another tame animal with his snout in the public trough? Is he going to sell his soul for government handouts, scholarships, stipends, subsidies, contracts, rebates, allotments, and allowances and grants? Can he be had for a draft on the United States Treasury? Or will he put principle above expediency, and love of country above love of bureaucratic largesse, so that, when he feels the country needs it, he can seize the federal government by the shoulders and give it a good shaking?

It is the citizen, not the government, who should be our concern. The man makes or breaks the government. This will be the land of the free only so long as it is the home of the brave. And there are a lot of survival-obsessed, spineless people in America tonight who would sell the country tomorrow to almost anyone—to Castro, or the United Nations, or the World Federalists, or the beatniks, or the Viet Cong, or the devil himself. Sell it? They would give it away.

Why is it that there is, on the one hand, such a rush to lean upon the government and, on the other hand, such a contempt for the government? Why does a great state university accept millions of dollars in government aid, and then permit its students to flout all decency and to intimidate officers of the government?

It is because there is a missing ingredient in our affluent society—namely, discipline. Because of the thermonuclear threat, many citizens are becoming existentialist-minded. They are valuing existence simply for its own sake, as if there were nothing else to life. Popular science has so deluded some of us that we believe that if we can control the bomb, we shall be spared the necessity of dying. So now nobody wants to die—ever.

Article continues below

It took an intrepid, death-defying spirit to live as an American in 1776. It will take an intrepid spirit for Americans to preserve their identity today: to maintain their hold on their country, to wrest it away from those who would pervert or destroy it, to keep the government doing what it is supposed to do.

What The Nation Needs

What we need today, then, is not a lot of sheep earmarked for data processing, with survival instructions so that they can breathe another twenty-four hours, providing they hold on to their ID cards. What we need is men strong in their manhood, men of backbone and spirit and heart and dash and tenacity. We need citizens who will do the right as God gives them to see the right, and who, like the prophet Amos, will hold God’s plumbline to the government and not turn the government into the plumbline.

How do you get men like that? It takes discipline, but more than discipline. Hitler had discipline; Mussolini made the trains run on time. You get men of integrity by exposing them to the Lord Jesus Christ, the Master of Men. And this is the business of the Church. If the Church can turn out good Christians, it will turn out good Americans, just as it turned out good Israelites and good Greeks and good Romans.

But of course the Church by itself cannot turn out good Christians. The transformation of men is the sovereign work of God, who draws men to Christ by his Spirit that they might be cleansed in the saving blood of the Lamb.

I do not maintain doctrinaire positions on the role of government in the life of the citizenry. I was at Birmingham on Easter ’64; I shall be at Montgomery this month. I should like to have been at Selma, partly because I have been a reporter off-and-on for almost thirty-seven years, but I had other duties. I should say the Selma issue is best seen in the light of the dignity of the American citizen and his right to run his own government through the ballot. I do not wish to see the government help the Negro so much as I wish to see the Negro, in the exercise of his full citizen rights, help in directing the government.

But on the other hand, I do not believe we can expect government officials to solve the civil rights issue, the pornography issue, or even the Viet Nam issue. It finally comes back to the individual. And we as editors take a further share in the responsibility by what we write in our journals and what we leave out of our journals—what we believe in our hearts and do in our own communities and churches and denominations, and then put in print for the world to behold.

Have something to add about this? See something we missed? Share your feedback here.

Our digital archives are a work in progress. Let us know if corrections need to be made.