You may think you have heard it all before—America is suffering from a moral breakdown and we need to restore traditional values. But as J. C. Watts reminds us, this is not just sound public policy, it is the only way we are going to save our nation from impending disaster. Representative Watts presented this address during Hillsdale College’s May 1998 Commencement.
According to recent news reports about the economy, America appears to be doing better than ever before. The stock market is up, the deficit is down—prosperity seems to be everywhere. Morally and culturally, however, it is not an exaggeration to say that we are on the verge of bankruptcy. The fact is that over the last quarter century we have squandered our spiritual capital.
When I was a small child, I learned the bedtime prayer, “Now I lay me down to sleep. I pray the Lord my soul to keep. If I should die before I wake, I pray the Lord my soul to take.” These days, that prayer comes to mind again, only it is America that I fear will die before I wake. I know, I know—America is a great nation. But she is not great enough to survive the growing rot within. Call it secularism, decadence, or irresponsibility—it is as deadly as any cancer, and it has invaded the body politic.
Thomas Jefferson once confessed, “Indeed, I tremble for my country when I reflect that God is just.” He was concerned about the character of the citizens in the early republic—how much more concerned he would be today! I shudder to think of what Jefferson would say about Americans in the 1990s. Many of us appear to believe that we can have a strong nation without worrying about our character or the character of our leaders. This is like saying we can swim in the ocean without worrying about getting wet. Character—that is, doing what is right when nobody is looking—is essential.
I sit on the National Security Committee in the U. S. House of Representatives, and I hear a lot of debate about what makes for a strong nation. How many tanks, bombers, and missiles should we buy? How should we react to regional conflicts around the globe that may affect our national interest? Who are our enemies? Who are our allies? How should we deal with them? As important as these questions are, none is as important as this: How do we defend ourselves from our worst enemy, which is us? How do we overcome our fallen nature and choose virtue over vice, right over wrong?
I’ll take character over tanks, bombers, and missiles any day of the week. That is because character is the best weapon of defense. But we have a long way to go when it comes to developing character in this cynical, self-indulgent age. Just look at the moral weakness we tolerate. We allow a basketball player with an $8 million contract to choke his coach, issue a death threat, leave the room, and come back 20 minutes later as if nothing had happened. Worse yet, we portray him as the victim! He can’t possibly be held responsible for his destructive impulses, so our reasoning goes. We pass an Endangered Species Act that protects 13 different species, born and unborn, but cannot protect human beings from abortion or euthanasia. Those who protest the killings are treated as dangerous fanatics. We encourage husbands and wives to break their marriage vows without the slightest word of reproach, since divorce has become not only respectable but fashionable. And we permit the nation’s chief executive to prey on young women while we vilify his accusers.
But there are shining rays of hope. Look at Promise Keepers, a wonderful organization that has led millions of men to reaffirm their commitment as husbands and fathers. Look at Prison Fellowship, which ministers to many of the 1.5 million inmates across America. Look at the new music artists who have topped the charts with songs that condone simple everyday virtues instead of killing cops and raping women. These are just a few of the positive developments that rebuild character.
One of the most important ways to rebuild character involves education, for teaching the young is the primary method of ensuring that traditional values and ideas will be passed on to the next generation. Unfortunately, the sorry state of the public schools does not allow the method to work properly. This hurts the poor in particular. Right now, the government mandates that poor parents must send their children five days a week to schools that fail them in every way. These institutions do not teach them how to read, write, or compute. They do not teach them the love of learning or the joy of overcoming academic challenges.
I must stress that I am not anti-public education. I am pro-child. That means that I am in favor of the main factor that makes schools work: competition. Bad schools will always be bad unless someone threatens to put them out of business. The famous ex-slave and abolitionist orator Frederick Douglass once said, “Some people know the importance of education because they have it. I know the importance of education because I didn’t.” We mustn’t let our children remain enslaved to ignorance.
Another way we can help rebuild character is to rid America of one of the worst corrupters of virtue: welfare. We have spent billions of dollars on government welfare programs, and all they have done is create more poverty and inescapable dependency. It is high time to cure poverty and to do so in a manner that does not rob the poor of their dignity or their drive to succeed.
In the process, we have to make sure that the rewards for families that stay together are greater than the rewards for families that break up. We also have to make sure that the rewards for working men and women who take out second mortgages to put their children through college are greater than the rewards for drug dealers on the streets. And in all times and in all places, we have to make sure that there is a direct relationship between effort and reward. With the best of intentions, big government has tried to sever that relationship by subsidizing the destruction of the family, penalizing the successful, demeaning the work ethic, and excusing personal accountability. This cannot go on any longer without doing irreparable harm.
We also have to remember that the phrase “One nation under God” means that our land, our flag, and our government are divine gifts. We have to begin making wise use of them once again. But we have to do so soon, or America will surely die before we wake. Resuscitating the values and the institutions that gave America its freedom over two hundred years ago takes more than noble aspirations. It takes desperate action, spurred on by powerful faith. In the past, the present, and the future, faith has and will always prove to be the strongest force. It can move mountains and it can move nations—if, first of all, we let it move our hearts.