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When America Ceases To Be Good

Colossians 3:5-11

When, in the midst of the Second World War, the Allied cause seemed all but hopeless, Winston Churchill sent a telegram to Franklin Delano Roosevelt. It was Churchill’s intent to try to lift America’s national spirit in a time of dark despair. In the telegram, Churchill quoted some lines from Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s poem entitled “The Ship Of State.”

Thou, too, sail on, O Ship of State!
Sail on, O Union! Strong and Great!
Humanity with all its fears,
With all the hopes of future years,
Is hanging breathless on thy fate!

What was true then is just as true now—the hopes and fears of the people of this world hang upon America’s fate. Therefore, I would like to focus our attention today upon our “Ship of State”, upon the state of this nation we love.

First, I want to suggest to you that we are in danger of losing our national virtue.

A long time ago the French philosopher, Montesquieu, wrote, “It is virtue that makes things work in a democracy.” Lord Devlin, the famous British jurist, put it this way: ” A sense of right and wrong is necessary for the life of a community. History shows that the loosening of moral bonds is often the first stage of a society’s disintegration.” Abraham Lincoln, in his second inaugural address, picked up the same theme when he called America to “a new birth of freedom.” And how did he define that freedom? “With malice toward none and with charity for all.” In other words, freedom is dependent upon virtue.

At about the same time Lincoln was uttering those words, Julia Ward Howe was writing our greatest national hymn, “The Battle Hymn of the Republic.” In it, she has the line “As Christ died to make men holy, let us live to make men free.” Two trumpets of truth sounding simultaneously, in duet and in harmony—holiness and freedom, virtue and liberty. So the testimony of our faith and the testimony of our national experience is this: “Blessed is the nation whose God is the Lord”—for it is out of virtue that freedom comes.

More than a century ago, a Frenchman named Alexis De Toqueville, traveled across America and he kept a journal of his experiences. Historians agree that his words reveal a remarkable insight into what makes America tick. He wrote: “I understand the greatness and the genius of America. America is great because America is good. When America ceases to be good, then America will cease to be great.”

America, my sisters and brothers, is in danger of ceasing to be good. Believe me, I take no joy in saying that. I am one of those who is profoundly offended when our nation’s flag is burned and so I take no pleasure in reminding you that the flag is now stained by immorality. But to deny that is to be oblivious to the obvious. It is to suffer from national amnesia, forgetting that no land can be free or remain free if it is not good. Yet look at what is happening. Nine million crimes were committed in America last year—only 12% of the perpetrators were arrested, only 6% were convicted. The average length of incarceration for a murderer is 10 years. While collar crime went up 15% last year. Shoplifting is up 25%. 344,000 of our college students are fraudulently delinquent in their student loans. Hotels which serve the affluent note that one out of every three guests steal something from the hotel before leaving. Hospitals calculate that medical personnel from top to bottom steal the equivalent of $1,000 per bed per year from the hospital, a cost passed on to the patient. Pornography has become an 8 billion dollar a year business and more than 70% of those pornographic materials end up in the hands of minors—and as a result, marriages, morals, and even lives are being twisted and broken. Twenty percent of our 15 year olds have had sex. Of the teens who become pregnant, 45% elect to abort the pregnancy. Every day 4,300 preborn babies are aborted in America—only about 1% of those abortions are performed for life-or health-threatening reasons. Total up all the casualties of the Revolutionary War, the Civil War, World Wars I and II, the Korean War and the Vietnam War and they don’t even come close to the nine and a half million lives snuffed out by abortion in recent years in America.

You know the litany. Rose defames the game that gave him his name. The Speaker of the House is hounded from office because he did not do right. Kennedy sits and judges judges while wrapped all the time in the robes of his own shame. Swaggart tries to use showy sermons to cover his off-camera slease. Pierce turns the agency most designed to help the poor and the oppressed in this land into nothing more than a trough for thieves. Boesky steals the money of a lot of little people, and serves a short time in prison while his vast fortune multiplies. A Navy petty officer sells his country’s secrets for a little Russian cash.

Don’t get me wrong. I do not attempt to brand every America with the sins of a few, but I say to you that what has happened to some very visible people in our nation is symptomatic of our time and of our lives. Principle is sacrificed for dollars. Truth is prostituted for political gain. High power and privilege are debased and dishonored by selfishness. Constitutional ideals are used to obscure the truth. Alcoholism rises. Addiction rises. AIDS rises. And America goes down.

For hundreds of years a great tree stood in Colorado—a tree that towered over the other trees—it was known for many miles around—a tree that had stood there when this nation was born more than 200 years ago. Across the years, that tree has been struck by lightning no less than 14 times. It has endured storm and rain and sleet and mountain avalanche. Not long ago that great tree fell. It fell because its heart had been eaten out by beetles. The fiber of its strength had been destroyed from the inside.
And I tell you this: The beetles of immorality are eating away at the heart of this nation. Alexis de Toqueville was right: “When America ceases to be good, she will cease to be great.” And America is in danger of ceasing to be good. Or to borrow Longfellow’s imagery, our Ship of State is a great, sleek luxury liner sailing into uncharted waters with a leak below the water line.

Now I want to suggest to you that we as Presbyterians are uniquely suited to help us reclaim our national virtue.

Woodrow Wilson, the son of a Presbyterian minister and himself a Presbyterian Elder, in his last address to the American people before his death, spoke these words: “Our civilization cannot survive materially unless it is redeemed spiritually. It can be saved only by becoming permeated with the spirit of Jesus Christ. Accomplishing that is the final challenge to the church, to our political organizations and to everyone who fears God and loves his country.”

You see, the goal of the Christian life is not so much the salvation of one’s own soul, but the salvation of others. Our model is Moses who said: “Lord, let me be damned if my people might be saved.” Our model is Paul who said: “Let my name be accursed, if my people might be saved.” The fact is that when we as Christians think of “duty, honor, country,” we understand that our first duty is to God, and that duty is to honor Jesus Christ and we do that duty by bringing Christ to our country.

My friends, we must not overestimate evil and underestimate God. Even though evil is rampant in our time and in our land, that does not mean that the strategies of the divine are being frustrated. We must hold fast to God’s love and God’s Word, for then we shall have the power to put evil under control. As Paul writes: “Put to death therefore what is earthly in you: immorality, impurity, passion, evil desire, covetousness which is idolatry. On account of these the wrath of God is coming. In these you once walked, but now put them away: anger, malice, slander and foul talk from your mouth. Do not lie to one another, seeing that you have put off the old nature with its practices and have put on the new nature which is being renewed after the image of its creator. Here there cannot be Greek and Jew, circumcised and uncircumcised, barbarian, scythian, slave, free, but Christ is all, and in all.”

Presbyterians have long lived under the power of those words. You see, there are three great hallmarks of our Presbyterian believing. The first mark is righteousness. Presbyterians believe that we must be right with God, and that when we are right with God then we can be right with other people. We therefore pursue justice and reconciliation with other people. We cannot be at peace with God as long as any of God’s people suffer. The second hallmark of Presbyterians is frugality. Faithful Presbyterians understand that all things we possess are gifts that come from God. Therefore, we believe that ambition and hard work and success are not wrong as long as these things are not idolized, as long as they do not control us. In other words, we are to work as hard as we can, in order to make as much as we can, in order to bless others as deeply as we can. The third Presbyterian mark is holiness. Presbyterian understand that we must depend upon prayer, Scripture, devotion and sacraments. There is a discipline to the dedicated life of the serious Presbyterian which understands that worship on Sunday morning does not give us enough power to live the life of faith in a world as evil as this. The power must be claimed anew each day by a life that is disciplined and turned toward God as any healthy living thing turns toward the sun.

So in a time of such moral confusion in our national life, it is important for us to remember who we are as Presbyterians. We need to remember that the only minister to sign the Declaration of Independence was a Presbyterian minister and that nine of the other signers were students of his at a Presbyterian school called Princeton. We need to remember that it was Presbyterians who financed the American Revolution, that the colonists’ rifles were wadded with pages torn from Presbyterian hymnbooks, that the English labeled the American Revolution as “a Presbyterian uprising.” We as Presbyterians contributed more to the winning of independence than any other faith in the land. And just as we fought then to win independence from England, so now we must fight to win dependence upon God, to bring to America once again the virtue it is in danger of losing, the goodness that has made it great. Righteousness, Frugality, Holiness. Three words for our land and for our time.

Some years ago when the Tennessee Valley Authority was being developed, it was necessary to move the cabins of some of the mountain people away from where the waters were going to rise. There was one old mountaineer who would not budge. They offered him five times what his land was worth, but he wouldn’t accept it. They then said that they would give him the money plus build him a stone house infinitely superior to the rustic cabin which was his. He would not move. They asked him why. He said: “Because my great-grandfather lighted the fire that’s on our hearth and he asked our family to promise that we would never let that fire go out.” So the engineers got together and they said to him: “If we can pick up that fire just as it is and carry it to your new house so that those ancient flames still burn but burn now in a new place, will you then move?” The old mountaineer thought about it and then he said: “Yes, for all I desire is to help keep alive the fires of my fathers.”

That is our task—yours and mine—to help keep alive the fires of our fathers: Righteousness. Frugality. Holiness. For then with full and grateful hearts we shall be able to address this nation with the words Longfellow used to complete his poem:

In spite of rock and tempest’s roar
In spite of false lights on the shore
Sail on, nor fear to breast the sea!
Our hearts, our hopes are all with thee,
Our hearts, our hopes, our prayers, our tears,
Our faith triumphant o’er our fears,
Are all with thee—America—are all with thee!

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