by Bob Wheeler

Independence Hall

Independence Hall

    Today, of course, is Independence Day here in the U.S., the day on which we celebrate our birth as an independent nation. The Signers of the Declaration of Independence took a bold step indeed, not only in that they were challenging established authority and the greatest military power on earth at the time, but because they aimed to create a new government founded on entirely new principles, a government which would, in the words of the Declaration, “derive its just powers from the consent of the governed.”

    Our bold experiment in democracy has now lasted 238 years and has brought us unprecedented freedom and prosperity. Not that we have always been successful. The Republic has weathered its storms – civil war and economic depression among them – and has sometimes failed to live up to its own professed ideals of “liberty and justice for all.” But somehow we survived and we are still free – at least for the time being.

    For the future may not turn out as rosy as the past. We have been a free and democratic society for so long that there are certain things that we take for granted. But if we take them for granted we run the risk of losing them, along with many of the benefits that go along with them.

    As we have learned from recent events around the world there are certain cultural factors that are necessary for a successfully functioning democracy. Chief among them is the capacity of the people for self-government. If political power is to be placed in the hands of the people, and if the people are to enjoy a large measure of freedom from government interference, they must be able to use this power and freedom constructively. They must be able to manage their own affairs capably and not harm others in the process. But this presupposes a certain measure of self-control and individual responsibility. The citizens must be productive enough to meet basic physical needs, wise enough to raise their children to be responsible, law-abiding members of society, and thoughtful enough to respect the rights of others. All of this, in turn, assumes a standard of morality – a basic level of honesty and integrity. People should fulfill their duties and obligations in society simply because it is the right thing to do.

    In other words, democracy works best when there is a strong religious base on which to build. If people are sufficiently motivated by the fear of God to govern their own passions and appetites they will not need a dictator to make the trains run on time. They will work diligently, honor their commitments, obey the law, and provide for their own. But when public morality collapses, when people lack a sense of obligation to anything outside of themselves, they tend to care only for themselves. They will try to “game the system” and take advantage of others. They will lie, cheat and steal in order to get ahead. The eventual result is chaos, anarchy and social disintegration – until the dictator arrives to restore order.

    And so, on this, the anniversary of our nation’s independence, how goes it with us? On the surface things seem normal enough – we work and play and go about our daily routines. But beneath the surface things are not quite so healthy as they may seem. Our economy has been deindustrialized, our family structure has crumbled, our government is paralyzed. The federal government’s finances are a mess. How much longer can such a state of affairs continue? It looks like a prescription for revolution and eventual dictatorship.

    Centuries ago a wise king of Israel put it like this:

        “Righteousness exalts a nation,

         But sin is a reproach to any people.”

                        (Prov. 14:34; NKJV)

Or, as George Washington put it in is Farewell Address, “Of all the dispositions and habits which lead to political prosperity, religion and morality are indispensable supports . . . And let us with caution indulge the supposition that morality can be maintained without religion.”

    The question is, will we turn back before it is too late?