Wednesday, October 22, 2008

The Enemy Within

"A general dissolution of principles and manners will more surely overthrow the liberties of America than the whole force of the common enemy. While the people are virtuous they cannot be subdued; but when they lose their virtue they will be ready to surrender their liberties to the first external or internal invader... If virtue and knowledge are diffused among the people, they will never be enslaved. This will be their great security."

~ Samuel Adams, February 12, 1779

Lately I've been reading a lot of early American historical documents. One of the most stark features of the men and women who helped establish our country was their fearless commitment to integrity. I'm not espousing the belief that all of our founding fathers were Christians (although a great many of them were indeed); rather, I am acknowledging that they were passionately united by a desire to establish a nation based on principles of virtue, industriousness, and freedom. I'm going to write this piece under the assumption that we understand the definitions of these principles. Virtue being integrity; industriousness, hard work; and freedom, the liberty to choose what is right, not the right to choose whatever we deem acceptable.

Samuel Adams states, in the above quote, that when "the people are virtuous, they cannot be subdued." I thought for awhile about what he meant by that statement. The letter which contains this statement was written during the infancy of our country, in a time of great opposition and, in a sense, instability. Samuel Adams knew that, in order to truly succeed as a nation, virtue is a necessity. Without it, there is no passion; only complacency and ignorance.

I'm sure Mr. Adams was educated in world history. Every kingdom and empire suffers and eventually falls when given over to greed, tyranny, and corruption. Finally, here was a nation established upon an entirely different set of beliefs: just and limited rule, freedom, generosity, and righteousness.

I don't believe that America was established as a perfect nation, and I certainly don't believe she is perfect today. But I do believe, unashamedly, that America is a great nation, the greatest that ever graced the earth, because of her founding devotion to virtue.

But where is America's virtue now? It's still there, in the annals of documents established at our nation's birth, established for our well-being within and influence without -- "a shining light on a hill." It is still there, if only we will listen and heed the words and warnings of the men who knew, all too well, the price and the requirement of freedom.

There is an almost eerie, prophetic sound to Samuel Adams' quote: "...when they lose their virtue they will be ready to surrender their liberties to the first external or internal invader." There are not just enemies without; there are enemies within. I become as much an instigator of America's downfall when I fall into complacency, turning a blind eye to my own selfishness and lack of integrity. I instigate it again when I ignore the same from those around me.

Samuel Adams goes on to say that virtue and knowledge diffused among the people will be America's great security. He speaks of virtue and knowledge like two conjoined links on the same chain. Virtue and knowledge go hand in hand. When virtue is lost, there is a loss of passion (the people are 'subdued'). When passion is lost, replaced by indifference, there is an inevitable loss of knowledge. With the loss of knowledge comes the loss of the most basic common sense; we cease to think clearly. If we cannot think clearly and rationally, how on earth can we defend ourselves from enemies without and within?

Virtue and knowledge are inseparable in Peter's second letter, in the New Testament: "Giving all diligence, add to your faith virtue, to virtue knowledge..." (2 Peter 1; 5). Virtue is the predecessor of knowledge; knowledge cannot exist in its truly sublime and effective form when it is not wedded to virtue.

I love America. It's not very popular to say that anymore, but I'm not after popularity. I want truth. The truth is that America was founded as an astonishingly beautiful and counter-cultural "light on a hill." The men and women who fought for her sacrificed more than we can begin to imagine to make her a reality. This reality was not for themselves alone; it was for their posterity. It was for those by whom they were surrounded. It was for the other dreamers crazy enough to cross oceans and mountains and deserts in order to obtain, by diligent and honest hard work, the same beloved liberty. They knew that an America that held onto her virtue would not cease to offer, without and within, the hope of freedom.

I love America. I love the virtue that shone like a beacon to light the path for her birth. But I fear for her, too. I fear that we may fall so far from our height that we will not be able to climb back. Will I still be free, truly free, in twenty years? What kind of nation will be left for my future children? Will I have to know, like so many people in the world's history, the terrors of a nation built upon oppression and ignorance?

Thomas Jefferson, though certainly not a Christian (although perhaps a Deist), understood the beauty of virtue. He valued it. He also valued knowledge and freedom. Jefferson possessed a keen understanding of the grave danger in stubbornly refusing to acknowledge, as a nation, the source of our blessing:

"God who gave us life gave us liberty. And can the liberties of a nation be thought secure when we have removed their only firm basis, a conviction in the minds of the people that these liberties are the Gift of God? That they are not to be violated but with His wrath? Indeed, I tremble for my country when I reflect that God is just; that His justice cannot sleep forever."

So do I, Thomas. So do I.