The headline: Making History. The place: China. The magazine: The Economist. The gist of the article is captured in these lines: “The blistering pace of change in recent decades has kindled an anxiety that China is suffering from moral decay and a concomitant yearning for a revival of ancient values. The government is harnessing those feelings, using ancient rites and customs to spread favoured values.”
Interesting, Communists worried that Confucianism would undermine the Party, but now worry that its absence is undermining society.
Americans certainly share the disorientation provoked by “the blistering pace of change.” But, when offered a political leader, many voted for a person whose values hardly resembled our nation’s rites and customs.
America’s foundation has been shaped by Judeo-Christian values. Our Declaration of Independence most memorably noted: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”
For much of our history the various levels of government were undergirded by a citizenry that went to church and synagogue. Most took a weekly pause, a moment of reflection and gained a larger sense of self and life.
Hillel, the Hebrew elder, observed: “What is hateful to you, do not do to your neighbor. That is the whole Torah; the rest is the explanation of this—go study it.” Much the same can be said of the Christian testament. Those who hear variations on this divine theme weekly are, at the very least, challenged to be better citizens.
The British writer and poet Samuel Johnson, assessing government power observed: “How small, of all that human hearts endure, that part which laws and kings can cause or cure.”
We live in times that hold every judgment fallible. We live in times where more energy is spent criticizing our history than revering it. Criticism is warranted, but so is reverence. So let me try a few lines of an inaugural address on you and without first going to the next paragraph for an answer, attribute it to an American president.
“With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation’s wounds, to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan, to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations.”
These were the words of Abraham Lincoln on the occasion of his second inaugural address; our nation was still engaged in a civil war. Hundreds of thousands had died for their cause. His plaintive plea was for a nation violently divided to turn to God and seek the clarity and firmness necessary to heal and unite.
Where do we turn today? As the Chinese are urged to turn back to Confucius, where should American’s turn? Martin Luther King spoke directly to his peers in the pulpit when he urged them, from the Birmingham jail, to take a position on the front line in ending segregation. Sadly, many of his religious peers seemed to not understand the Gospels.
If those who lead churches and synagogues today choose political power over the demands of love, then the Judeo-Christian architecture of our nation will recede further and our nation will end up looking for “rites and customs” that can be substituted. There is no substitute.
Al Sikes is the former Chair of the Federal Communications Commission under George H.W. Bush. Al recently published Culture Leads Leaders Follow published by Koehler Books.