July 4th: May God Have Mercy on America!

This is July 4th and I am re-reading the Declaration of Independence, and the Constitution written eleven years later; amazing documents. While many consider them to be “inspired,” they are not inerrant; the 28 amendments to the Constitution are witness to that. Also the 13th, 14th, 15th, and 19th Amendments in particular prove that the Constitution has blind spots and must supported by something more if it going to provide the foundation for continuing freedom.

Os Guiness has written in A Free Peoples Suicide that there are many people in America today who scorn religious fundamentalism but are hard at work creating “a constitutional fundamentalism. It is being done through lawyers and judges rather than rabbis, priests, and pastors. Constitutional and unconstitutional have replaced orthodox and heretical.”  First amendment rights are being argued as the basis for opposing agendas and the interpretation of the Constitution itself is at the whim of political bias. Thus this incredible document alone cannot form the foundation for sustainable freedom. It needs to be supported by something else.

Guinness offers; “What the framers believed should complement and reinforce the Constitution and its separation of powers is the distinctive moral ecology that is at the heart of liberty.” Tocqueville called this moral ecology the “habits of the heart.” Guinness calls it “the golden triangle of freedom…freedom requires virtue, which requires faith, which requires freedom.”

What resonates with me, most likely because we have been assaulted by months of political campaigning, is the diminishing importance of virtue (character) that we see in our nation. We stress a written Constitution over the moral constitution of our nation’s citizenry and leadership. Unfortunately, examples of this are not hard to find.

Look at the impeachment of Bill Clinton in 1998 when he was the sitting president. He was not convicted by the Senate of “high Crimes and Misdemeanors”(Article II, Section 4 of the Constitution), and the overall consensus to the whole “affair” was that the character of the president was irrelevant as a public issue. What really matters to our society is competence– not character.  Look at the unrestrained greed and unfettered capitalism  of the Wall Street crisis and the recession of 2008. Look at the present political scenario and the upcoming election that will boil down to which untrustworthy candidate America trusts more. Our nation has sown the wind by making faith and virtue a private matter; it is now reaping the whirlwind of having two presidential candidates with serious personality flaws.

George Reedy, special assistant to Lyndon Johnson looked back on his experience in the halls of power and said, “in the White House, character and personality are extremely important because there are no other limitations…. Restraint must come from within the presidential soul and prudence from the presidential mind. The adversary forces which temper the action of others do not come into play until it is too late to change course.”(The Twilight of the Presidency, 1970, p. 20)

In spite of their importance, experience and competence are not the most important ingredients to what we should look for in a leader. We need a person of character who has demonstrated trustworthiness in his/her private world as well as in the public square. It is not the rhetoric or the promises for the future, but it is what they have done about keeping their promises in the past, both privately and publicly.

I think Os Guinness borders on the profound when he says, “Externally character is the bridge that provides the point of trust that links leaders with their followers. Internally, character is the part-gyroscope, part-brake that provides a leader’s deepest source of bearings and strongest source of restraint when the dizzy heights of leadership mean there are no other limitations.”

Our Constitution is a magnificent document and we can be thankful for it. But let us not fool ourselves into thinking that our nation can be sustained by a document alone without the virtue of its leaders and citizenry. “A good government may hold the rotten materials together for some time, but beyond a certain pitch, even the best constitution will be ineffectual and slavery will ensue.” (John Witherspoon, the only minister to sign the Declaration of Independence.)

May God have mercy on America!


Free to wire-walk, but for what?

wallendaI thought I was the only one who felt this way. Rex Huppke wrote an editorial in the Chicago Tribune yesterday about his thoughts on Nik Wallenda’s attempt to walk a tightrope stretched between two Chicago high-rises this Sunday evening. His article was titled, Wire Walk Dumb, not Heroic. “Let’s be clear, I hope nothing bad happens, and I wish Wallenda nothing but good fortune. But if walking a tightrope some 600 feet in the air above the Chicago River is heroic, then so is sticking your face in a fan…We have a tendency to conflate actual acts of heroism, like soldiers parachuting into a war zone or firefighters running into a burning building, with things that are bold but in the end purposeless.”

That is it; what is the purpose and value in such death-defying acts? We live in a free society where we can do what we want, but that is a problem. Os Guinness in his book A Free People’s Suicide says that the only way freedom is sustainable is if it leads a people to act in a way that has value greater than just for oneself. In other words, freedom is not merely the warrant to do whatever I want, but the ability to do what I ought. The goal of the American Revolution was not just independence from Britain; it was a freedom to build the American Republic.

Guinness writes, “People confuse freedom with choice, as they are dazzled daily by an ever-expanding array of external choices in consumer goods and lifestyle options. But the pursuit of choices has led to a surfeit (surplus) of choices and a scarcity of meaning and value—a point at which choice itself, rather than the content of any choice, has become the heart of freedom. The result is that modern people value choice rather than good choice.” The story is told of Socrates walking through the market place of Athens, a version of our mall, and saying in the face of all the options, “Who would have thought there were so many things that I could do without.”

Using Huppke’s analogy: If I exercised my freedom by announcing a trip to Hawaii to break the world’s record for distance-walking on the hardened crust of a lava flow, and I ended up a half-torso and a head. What would be the tragedy? Would you mourn my death or how senseless it was? Would you call me a hero or would you say, “That half a torso guy was a nincompoop?”

Paul says to the Galatians concerning their use of spiritual freedom in Christ, “For you were called to freedom, brothers. Only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for the flesh, but through love serve one another” (Gal. 5:13). Peter says a similar thing, “Live as free people, not using your freedom as a cover-up for evil, but living as bondservants of God (1 Peter 2:16).

Thus my freedom is not absolute, to do whatever I please, but it is a directed freedom; to choose to act in such a way that has meaning and purpose beyond me. Perhaps Wallenda’s free act could be justified as entertainment; perhaps his act could be used it to raise money for Chicago’s homeless; or maybe, if he was a Christian, he could invite people afterwards to an evangelistic crusade. One or more of these might make his act more purposeful, but I would still have this nagging suspicion that maybe his choice was not the best one; that maybe this act was still more about him than his cause.

I saw his great-grandfather Karl (age 73, the Great Wallenda) fall to his death in 1978 doing a similar thing in Puerto Rico. It was not heroic. I read somewhere that Karl told his wife that he always felt like a dead man when he was on the ground and that life was being on the wire. Hmmm…