Both Donald Trump and Joe Biden seem to believe that the best route to the future is through the past.
“Again” in Trump’s slogan—“Make America Great Again”—seeks an age when the United States had “greatness” in the eyes of the world. Making America “great” in the eyes of God is much more important than the nation’s global standing.
Then there’s Biden’s aim to get us back “like we use to be.” The former vice president wants to lead in a return to “core values” he sees threatened under Trump, to a period Biden characterizes as “ethical” and “straight” as well as truthful and supportive of our allies, an era of “all those good things.”
My concern is that neither man may understand just how far back into historic ages we must go if we are to get to the bright future they envision.
Maybe Trump and Biden should seek a return to the America that Frenchman Alexis de Tocqueville visited in the early 19th century. The chaos of his own country’s terror-filled revolution was doubtless much in mind in contrast to what he saw in post-Revolution America.
The French visitor would have recalled the anti-God, anti-religious spirit of the French Revolution. Reflecting on the intense spiritual landscape of early America, Tocqueville wrote: “When religion is destroyed in a people, doubt takes hold of the highest portions of the intellect and half paralyzes all the others... I doubt that man can ever support a complete religious independence and an entire political freedom at once... if he has no faith, he must serve, and if he is free, he must believe.”
Tocqueville would tell Trump that there is no greatness without a faith that is more than words and mere political expediency. The Frenchman would tell Biden there is no ethics, no truth, no moral straightness, no core values in the secularism that now fascinates so many in his party—if not himself. “Been there, done that,” Tocqueville might say to Biden.
But the period of Tocqueville’s America (1831-32) is not far enough back. The nation was no exemplar of highest values because slavery flourished in many of its states.
What about the crucial age of the formation of the Republic, and its founding documents? Tocqueville would have read the Founders’ belief that God is the source of the fundamental rights of “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness,” and the inferred accountability of government regarding the protection of those rights.
But, again, for the slaveholders of that day—some of whom composed the beautiful expression—the words were somewhat meaningless in their present moment. For today’s supporters of abortion, there is a denial of that basic right.
We would need to ask Joe Biden and Donald Trump: “What is your concept of accountability, and to whom are you ultimately answerable for your personal life and moral decisions?”
We must keep traveling back to the past for the sake of the future.
What about the age of John Winthrop, first governor of the Massachusetts Bay Colony? In 1630, he spoke the DNA into fetal America when he expressed the hope it would be “a city on a hill,” built on the principles of God’s Kingdom, through which all nations could be blessed.
But that vision faded in the passion for expansion, exploitation, and wealth. We cannot linger with Winthrop. We have to go farther into the past.
We must leapfrog centuries.
Some six hundred years before the coming of Jesus of Nazareth, the Christ, a king arose in Judah. Josiah was only eight when he came to the throne. As he grew older he began to understand the problems in his country.
At the center of the national crisis was the neglect and deterioration of the Temple. Josiah ordered and paid for its restoration.
One day Josiah’s aide, Shaphan, rushed to bring news to the king. Hilkiah, the high priest, had discovered the holy books of God’s law in the refuse. Josiah ordered Shaphan to read the scrolls. Immediately, Josiah began to recognize the nation-healing truth that had been cast aside.
The king knew that national greatness, ethics, straightness, truth, core values—all the things Trump and Biden call for today—were embedded in those books.
When King Josiah became “woke” to the tragic disregard for those inspired writings, he ripped his clothes in a sign of desperate sorrow and said, “the Lord’s great anger is burning against us because our ancestors have not obeyed the words in this scroll.”
The Lord gave His response through Huldah, a prophetess: “You were sorry and humbled yourself before the Lord when you heard what I said against this city and its people... You tore your clothes in despair and wept before me in repentance... So I will not send the promised disaster until after you have died and been buried in peace.” (2 Kings 22:18-20)
Donald Trump and Joe Biden both might consider tearing their clothes in sorrow (figuratively at least) for our losing God’s Word in the hidden ruins of decaying institutions, and forgetting the Scriptures’ vital role in the founding of America.
Such leadership would “make America great again,” and get us back to our “core values” and “all those good things.”
We have a long way to go.
Wallace Henley is senior associate pastor at Houston’s Second Baptist Church. He is a former White House and congressional aide, and founder of Belhaven University’s Master of Ministry Leadership degree. His latest book is Call Down Lightning, published by Thomas Nelsom-Emanate.