Editor’s note: The following is an excerpt of a sermon delivered on November 2 at the First Baptist Church in Havre de Grace, Maryland. A video of the full sermon is embedded below.
When I was a boy, the United States had just won a war for liberty. Under the allure of that victory many embraced the U. S. as a beacon of liberty and were able to proclaim, “Let freedom ring.” That seemed to some awkward, because they also saw in the U.S. the presence of systemic evils, such as state-imposed segregation, lynchings, and other abuses. But many another adopted the perspective of the great Joe Louis who, challenged in his support for the U.S. effort against Nazism, proclaimed that “Hitler has nothing that can help the U.S.” In the U.S. the reality for such minds was to recognize the experience of terror as local, and the experience of freedom as national. In other words, their hopes lay in the promises of the nation.
The reason to cling to the promises of the U. S. can be found in the character of the origins of the nation. Those who were inspired by dreams of liberty did not dwell in palaces of comfort. They instead launched out on uncharted seas, sailing through profound darkness, sometimes without even the light of stars to guide them. Yet they were guided; they were guided by an inner light. They had a strong faith in the God who moved them to seek a better way.
So, too, during the era of the Revolution, people moved by an inner light confronted the mightiest power on the face of earth in the pursuit of that self-government that gave force to the law of conscience—“obey God rather than man.”
It may seem at times that such inspirations and such labors are remote from the times in which we live. But that result is produced by distortion that comes from looking through refracting lenses, looking at America through the eyes of the world, or through general statistics, or through institutions and policies, or through geographies. America is to be found in none of those. The flag we salute and to which we pledge points our attention to “the republic for which it stands.” And we are that republic, for it is only an idea to which we cling. When I look to the mountains, the skies above, the great lakes and oceans, I do not see America. When flying above and looking down, though, I see ribbons of highways, fields and factories, cities and farms, churches and schools. There I see America, in the works of its citizens.
More precisely, I see America in the results of the energies exerted to realize America’s promises of riches and values. But I see forebodings as well, for when I look more closely still, I see Americans sorting themselves by industry and indolence. That is, I see habits and patterns that describe a fabric tearing at the seams. I see citizens divided by class and status in a way that does not reflect the promise of ruling authority in relation to which each assumes the station of co-ruler. Instead, I see growing deference to “rulers” who should rather be seen as “servants”—public servants.
I am moved, therefore, to wonder how we ever arrived at that point at which we lost sight of the people’s responsibility for their circumstances and turned, instead, to the organizing hand of the state as the source of riches and values. But this is not an occasion for a historical review. It is rather an occasion for exhortation to citizens to re-assume their fundamental responsibility – to acknowledge that they, only, are ultimately accountable for what befalls them. Our votes are not expressions of opinion; they are commands. When the results fail to achieve the intended ends, it is because the commands were improvident. That means that we were careless in identifying representatives or servants who could fulfill the expectations that we had. Therefore, we cannot be too careful in weighing the characters and abilities of candidates for office.
What, then, are we to do? We should always begin in prayer, for the advice of Jethro to Moses still holds good for us: “Let us ask God, first, to provide able men and women, such as fear God, love truth, and hate covetousness.”
But we must not forget that this divine injunction to Moses was a command that he use his judgment to determine who were such persons. We, too, are called to judge the pretensions of candidates for offices, and the extent to which they meet the criteria God imposes for those who hold authority rightfully.
This means that we must see beyond the promises of candidates and into their characters. We should ask whether they are guided by an inner light, and will therefore still be able to find their way in a world often darkened by sinfulness. And that means judging whether they are merely posturing—creating moral Potemkin villages—or honestly moved by moral insight.
Let me illustrate this for you: When I chaired the U. S. Commission on Civil Rights, I visited once with the governor of Arkansas in his office. We had a long, engaging conversation, in which he regaled me with an account of wonderful success in improving learning in one of the state’s worst schools. He was able to rattle statistics of test score improvement that were truly astonishing. According, upon my return to Washington, D.C., I instructed commission staff to follow up and bring a report that we could share broadly with other jurisdictions. For, such work deserved to be shared.
The staff fulfilled the mission and returned to report that they had good news and bad news. The good news was that the test scores were exactly as the governor had described them. The bad news, however, was that the elevated test scores had been achieved by removing scores of poor performers from regular classes and placing them in special education, which exempted them from taking the tests. In short, the self-declared improvement was actually a sham, a moral Potemkin village that Governor Clinton had constructed to claim doing a good work where no real work at all was being done.
The resort to the moral Potemkin village happens when a secular ruling class is guided by the coordinates of an ideological compass—checking off constituency coordinates—rather an inner light.
If we apply these criteria to the present election, it will be evident that we have been denied a realistic opportunity to vote for a candidate, for president at least, who meets the criteria to exercise rightful authority.
So, we should ask what that implies, in light of what we know God has done in the past. The first thing to consider is whether, as a nation that has strayed, we are subject to God’s punishment? The children of Israel were more than once handed over to reprobate rulers in chastisement for their sins. Will that be our fate? Or, is it possible that God has delayed his judgment, is withholding his hand, giving us a chance to return into his courts? Our choice in this election may well depend upon how we answer that question—which alternative points to the completion of decay, and which points to a halting, a pause, a reaching out for redemption?
May not the experience of Nineveh be instructive in this hour? Jonah thought Nineveh did not deserve redemption, for having traveled the last mile in dissoluteness. God, however, judged otherwise; God redeemed the city. May He not also redeem us in this late hour? May he not do so through a flawed vehicle, even as King David himself was a flawed savior of Israel?