People gathered to hear the words coming through radio, computer and TV speakers. The present-day scene was reminiscent of the past century’s war era photos depicting people clustering to hear a president’s speech, as they clung to his words for guidance and hope.
Only this time it was not our own president’s voice that resonated throughout homes and businesses nationwide. It was the voice of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu as he addressed the U.S. Congress on March 3.
I had never before witnessed that kind of eagerness over any president’s speech during my lifetime. But I had seen historic pictures and videos portraying that attitude. I began to wonder: “What words of hope and strength did some of our past leaders have to offer that could have brought people leaning in to hear? And has that power devolved in some way in more recent years?”
A quick search turned up these lines spoken by presidents throughout the years:
“We have no government, armed with power, capable of contending with human passions, unbridled by morality and religion. ... Our Constitution was made only for a moral and religious people.”- John Adams, addressing the military in 1798
"And let us not trust to human effort alone, but humbly acknowledging the power and goodness of Almighty God, who presides over the destiny of nations, and who has at all times been revealed in our country's history, let us invoke His aid and His blessings upon our labors." - Grover Cleveland, in his First Inaugural Address on March 4, 1885
“The world must be made safe for democracy. Its peace must be planted upon the tested foundations of political liberty.” - Woodrow Wilson, speaking to the War Congress of April 2, 1917
“When written in Chinese, the word ‘crisis’ is composed of two characters. One represents danger and the other represents opportunity.” - John F. Kennedy, on the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962
"There is nothing wrong in America that can't be fixed with what is right in America." - Bill Clinton, in his First Inaugural Address on January 20, 1992
"Change will not come if we wait for some other person, or if we wait for some other time. We are the ones we've been waiting for. We are the change that we seek." - Barack Obama, after his nomination by the Democratic Party on February 5, 2008
I’m not an expert on presidential history, and I’m not going to make judgments about the character of these men or their political policies based on these few words. These quotes stood out to me, either because I found them inspiring and convicting or less than convincing. The difference is made when the message represents a foundational system arising from the beliefs and values of a Judeo-Christian worldview.
Our system of government is not merely influenced by Judeo-Christian values. It is dependent on them, and, even as John Adams said, it cannot properly survive or function without the support of religion and morality. In a government deeply rooted in Christianity lie the tested foundations of political liberty to which Woodrow Wilson referred.
Of course, that’s all great in theory. But does it hold true when matched against reality? That’s what I had to ask when sitting down to talk with Christian philosopher and apologist Nancy Pearcey.
“A biblical view of reality inspired our political and legal principles,” she told me.
“Yeah, but how?” I asked. “Give me an example.”
“The founders held a high view of human dignity as creatures made in God's image, and therefore capable of self-government,” she explained. “Yet they also held a realistic view of humans as sinful creatures prone to abuse power, and therefore requiring mutual restraints. Thus, we now have our unique system of constitutional checks and balances.”
I was willing to concede that much, but I wasn’t sure if it proved Christian beliefs were necessary to gird up our government.
“OK. I can see how that is still relevant today. But why can’t humanism or secularism be a force working in that same system?”
“The alternative is a materialist conception [without God] that leaves humans as complex mechanisms within a universe that is nothing but a vast machine,” Pearcey answered.
“Why does that matter? Humans could have the ability to act, guiding governments and themselves to good ends, all on their own. That’s what humanist philosophy would claim.”
“If we are machines in a vast mechanistic universe, then there is no such thing as logic or justice or fairness,” she said. “It would be impossible for our schools and our government to make decisions based on logic or justice or fairness because those things cannot exist in a purely material world.”
“So you’re saying it doesn’t make sense to claim that the world described by secularists could produce the values woven into our system of government,” I concluded. “In fact, the world wouldn’t make any sense if there was no God, but only material things.” But I had one more question.
“Can we insist that Christianity does fit what we see of reality and is even the source behind much of what we see?”
Pearcey didn’t hesitate to share evidence that Christianity stands behind the institutions we take for granted in Western culture.
“A biblical view of reality has inspired much of Western art, music, and literature. Its concept of laws in nature provided the starting assumption for modern science. It inspired humanitarian activity throughout the centuries in the founding of schools, hospitals, orphanages, soup kitchens, and so on.”
After talking with Pearcey, I understood how attempts to inspire and lead the nation have changed over the years, as I found reflected in the quotes above. It answered the question as to why some of those quotes had the power to deeply stir my soul, and others failed to bring more than a surface ripple.
Obviously, some of the presidents quoted above defined a need for morality, liberty, and divine intervention in governing the nation and dealing with crisis. Others focused on human ability and potential. Each individual must judge between the two options, but I won’t deny that I’m drawn to the former. Sentiments that best uphold hope, courage, and leadership must be grounded in something more solid than pragmatic or vague humanistic declarations.
One last quote, from Lyndon B. Johnson’s State of the Union Address on January 4, 1965, sums up the issue:
“A president’s hardest task is not to do what is right, but to know what is right.”