The Greatest of These

When the world changes too rapidly, people become fearful. When people become fearful, conflicts erupt. Conflicts destroy what little security people have left.

A little more than 77 years ago the United States faced unprecedented menace, instability, uncertainty, and violence. Europe was in convulsion. Refugees by the millions were streaming across the violated borders. England, the empire at the time, had been reduced to hiding behind the channel wall and hoping for a miracle.

In his annual message to Congress, given on January 6, 1941, President Roosevelt tried to universalize the problem for Americans in denial and inclined to isolationism. His theme was the “four freedoms” that Americans and all the suffering people around the world were entitled to. These four freedoms, seen in the president’s own hand in his speech notes that had gone through seven drafts, were: the freedom of speech, the freedom of worship, the freedom from want, and the freedom from fear. The speech resonated with a nation and gave a moral clarity to the bitter struggles ahead.

The United States began in a flurry of revolutionary fervor. It embraced the egalitarian principles of the Enlightenment with enthusiasm. Taking the better part of its English legal heritage it forged a new path with a Constitution designed to thwart tyranny and a Bill of Rights (10 human-made guiding principles for individual freedom) designed to protect the people. Of course, as far back as 1215 the Magna Carta had enumerated rights and protections, and in 1689 England’s Glorious Revolution produced its Bill of Rights. But the American experiment went further and inspired the Old World with its high ideals. A great beginning!

Then for a long time the story became mixed. The new power showed expansionist patterns with Old World familiarity. It attempted the conquest of Canada. It enveloped Spanish holdings to the west and south. It removed the original inhabitants by conflict and exclusion (most infamously the Indian Removal Act of 1830, signed by Andrew Jackson). It attempted to exclude Chinese immigration, bare decades after expanding military might into Asia and shotgunning the Japanese shogun into a trade alliance. The history books summarize it all as American Exceptionalism and Manifest Destiny. But other than a theological justification often added to the mix it was very Old World. For that Old World, this new power appeared unruly and often unreliable. No surprise that the Crimean War, which involved all the great powers, saw no stars and stripes. It took a protracted world war to entice the United States to step in rather tepidly after the old powers had exhausted themselves. But even then, it was not a morally charged involvement. More a joining the war club coming out.

In retrospect World War II seems inevitable. But for the average American it was not seen that way. The amoral pursuit of self-interest that resulted from the depredations of the First World War had certainly affected U.S. society. In Europe it led to barbarous cynicism: in the U.S., it was complacency. Someone else’s war! Time to pull up the drawbridges, according to many voices in the U.S. at the time.

Then the president’s message. He was set to help a failing England. He was already set to counter the bloody expansion of the Japanese empire into China and Korea--even if the surprise attack of December 7, 1941, was unimagined. He needed to give Americans a moral compass for their actions.

Four freedoms that cover almost everything that the Constitution imagined, and launch out into the best moral principles of religious faith. They produced “the greatest generation” we still laud today. They inspired a nation to rescue Western civilization and then steeled to the generally selfless work of rebuilding Europe after the war. The result was the period of American greatness; when it became a superpower. That power had much to do with economic might built up by an armaments industry and loans to desperate allies. It had much to do with overwhelming military might and Minutemen missiles. But I believe it had everything to do with moral greatness and a commitment to the Bill of Rights; to the Four Freedom, and was informed by a still-Christianized worldview.

It can be no accident that this period of greatness was the era of the Peace Corps; of American aid that went beyond sweetheart arms deals to client states. It was a time when peoples living under despotism knew that there were welcoming arms if they could dodge their own government’s bullets and cross into “the free United States.” It was a time a moral rectitude, when even the fearmongering, purge-inducing rants of Senator McCarthy could be dissipated by the “have you no shame” appeal to decency. It was a time when ministers of religion linked arms with civil rights activists and marched for their freedom inheritance/ birthright. It was even a time before free speech zones, when the young took to the streets to protest a war they saw as unjust. It was tumultuous; but American freedom and greatness was rampant.

We need another Four Freedoms speech or at least the reminder of it in a dynamic baseline way if greatness is ever to be experienced again. Law is fine, but as any Christian knows, law without grace is a killing thing. Yes, any Wesphalian state must secure its borders: but is it much different now that few states shoot citizens escaping but it is somehow OK to shoot people coming in? And is greatness achieved by becoming the bully on the block? Not even in the schoolyard was that true for long.

My appeal is for America to rediscover its true greatness, which always lay in the direction of moral power. I do not think our society exceptional in this regard. Without consistent morality, power always reverts to the Genghis Khans and the blood despotism of the past.

The apostle Paul, big contributor to the New Testament, was always able to summarize things well when it came time for the “therefores” and “finally brethren.” Chapter 13 of his letter to the Corinthians tries to get to the nub of what really matters before God. The last verse summarizes by saying: “And now these three remain: faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love” (verse 13, NIV).* The word “love” is sometimes translated as charity—more understandable to twentieth-century rationalists, but love nonetheless.

With love/charity the Four Freedoms take life. With love/charity the Bill of Rights begin to apply to all. With love/charity as a national aspiration, no one will need to choke out “have you no shame.” It was always humanity’s destiny to aim at this sort of greatness.

*Bible texts credited to NIV are from the Holy Bible, New International Version. Copyright © 1973, 1978, 1984, 2011 by Biblica, Inc. Used by permission. All rights reserved.


Article Author: Lincoln E. Steed

Lincoln E. Steed is the editor of Liberty magazine, a 200,000 circulation religious liberty journal which is distributed to political leaders, judiciary, lawyers and other thought leaders in North America. He is additionally the host of the weekly 3ABN television show "The Liberty Insider," and the radio program "Lifequest Liberty."