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Is the ‘spirit of 1776’ imperiled?

A recent Quinnipiac University Poll generated some profoundly shocking results.

U.S. Army Europe commander Ben Hodges speaks to soldiers during the final day of NATO Saber Strike exercises in Orzysz, Poland, June 16, 2017.
U.S. Army Europe commander Ben Hodges speaks to soldiers during the final day of NATO Saber Strike exercises in Orzysz, Poland, June 16, 2017. | (Photo: REUTERS/Ints Kalnins)

I have been tremendously inspired in recent days by the incredibly courageous defense Ukrainians have mounted in response to the Russians’ savage and unprovoked invasion of their country. I have even said publicly, “I recognize the ‘Spirit of 1776’ when I see it” as part of appeals for America to give substantial military assistance to help the Ukrainians to defend themselves.

The “Spirit of 1776” does live in Ukraine, but does it still live in the United States of America? The Quinnipiac Poll revealed that when Americans were asked, “If you were in the same position as Ukrainians are now, do you think that you would stay and fight or leave the country?”

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The “good” news is that 55% of Americans said “yes” (70% of men and 40% of women). The bad news is that 38% said “no” (22% of men and 52% of women). As depressing as those figures are, when you delve deeper into the findings, the news gets even more disturbing.

Like virtually every other issue in current American culture, there is a large partisan divide. Broken down on party lines, 68% of Republicans said yes, they would stay (57% of Independents and 40% of Democrats said “yes”). Among those Americans who said “no,” they would not stay and fight an invader, broke down as follows (25% of Republicans, 36% of Independents, and 52% of Democrats).

When the poll results are divided by age groups, the results were as follows:

                        Age in Years               Stay and Fight             Leave the Country

                             18-34                             45%                                  48%

                             35-49                             57%                                  37%

                             50-64                             66%                                  28%

The stark generational decline from the oldest to the youngest does not bode well for the future. Why is it that the percentage who would stay and fight drops 21% in two generations?

The answer is found in the profound assault on the basic Judeo-Christian values upon which our nation was founded.

C.S. Lewis (1898-1963) sounded the warning way back in 1943 when, after reading a British textbook advocating moral relativism (The Green Book), he wrote The Abolition of Man, describing how the denial of the concept of absolute truth would lead to the decay of moral virtue in society.

“In a sort of ghastly simplicity, we remove the organ and demand the function. We make men without chests and expect of them virtue and enterprise. We laugh at honor and are shocked to find traitors in our midst. We castrate and bid the geldings be fruitful.”  

As usual, C.S. Lewis was prescient.

Another one of the 20th century’s great men, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn (1918-2008), eloquently sounded a similar warning to the West. The Nobel Laureate, in his Harvard Commencement address in 1978, said that the humanistic worldview ignored, or denied the intrinsic evil in fallen man and was responsible for Western Civilization’s “dangerous trend of worshipping man and his material needs. Solzhenitsyn, a Russian Orthodox Christian, added the sobering thought that the secular humanism of the West would ultimately succumb to its communistic materialistic ideological cousin since communism was more consistent with the presuppositions shared by both views (Ronald Berman ed. Solzhenitsyn at Harvard, Washington, D.C., Ethics & Public Policy Center, 1980, p. 320).

In the midst of the Soviet Union’s nuclear confrontation with the West in the Cold War, Solzhenitsyn saw the moral relativism represented by Bertrand Russell’s (1872-1970) Cold War infamous slogan “Better Red than dead” as abominable.

Solzhenitsyn’s response to Russell is illuminating!

“All my life and the life of my generation, the life those who share my views, we all had one viewpoint. Better to be dead than to be a scoundrel. In this expression of Bertrand Russell’s there is an absence of all moral criteria. Looked at from a short distance, these words allow one to maneuver and to continue to enjoy life. But from a long-term point of view, it will undoubtedly destroy those people who think like that.”

Unfortunately, during the last eight decades or so, those defending Judeo-Christian values have been playing checkers while those advocating for no absolutes and the moral relativity of everything have been playing multidimensional chess or Nintendo.

The twentieth century witnessed the virtual triumph of humanistic world views both in the West and in an authoritarian form in Russia and China. Men as influential and important as John Dewey (1859-1952) the father of modern education and B.F. Skinner (1901-1990), the enormously influential Harvard behavioral psychologist, have disseminated humanistic views deeply in education pre-kindergarten through graduate school.

Traditional Judeo-Christian proponents were not without those who were sounding the alarm.  In addition to Lewis and Solzhenitsyn, no less a personage than Nobel Laureate T.S. Eliot warned of the West’s inevitable choice between a reassertion of Christian culture or an emerging pagan, humanistic culture. (T.S. Eliot, “The Idea of a Christian Society” in Christianity and Culture, New York: Harcourt, Brace, and World, 1949).

The tidal wave of moral relativism that has engulfed our culture has profoundly changed our nation.

Thirty-three years ago, in 1989, President Ronald Reagan (1911-2004), in his Farewell Address sounded the alarm bells:

“Those of us who are over thirty-five or so years of age [i.e. born before 1954] grew up in a different America. We were taught, very directly, what it means to be an American. And we absorbed, almost in the air, a love of country and an appreciation of its institutions.”

President Reagan went on to observe that for some reason “Younger parents aren’t sure that an unambivalent appreciation of America is the right thing to teach modern children.”

Why would that be true? Those younger parents were the products of a culture that was increasingly uncomfortable with unambiguous terms like ‘good” and “evil.”

As I read the depressing Quinnipiac Poll results concerning the precipitous decline of younger and younger men to defending their country, I recalled a conversation I had several years ago with my son. We had just finished watching a particularly graphic and bloody episode of the great “Band of Brothers” miniseries depicting the progress of American paratroopers from Normandy to V-E Day.

This particular episode portrayed scenes of hand-to-hand combat between American and German soldiers. My son asked, “Dad, what made the ‘Greatest Generation’ the greatest generation?”

I replied, “Well, son, as a ‘Baby Boomer,’ I may not be qualified to answer that question. But my father, your grandfather, was in the Pacific from Dec. 7, 1941 through V-J Day in 1945 and had 13 battle stars.” I continued, “here are some probable reasons. First, they almost all had their fathers in the home, with the example and discipline that infers. Second, most of them grew up on farms and they had chores. Third, they almost all went to somebody’s church, temple or synagogue. And they were taught at home, church, and school that America was a great country, well worth defending and even dying to protect. Also, they were taught the importance of winning and that losing has real consequences. There were no trophies for participation.”

I concluded, “I think it was all those reasons that shaped the men and boys who kept coming ashore at Normandy, Okinawa and Iwo Jima until the victory was secured.”

We continued to produce such men into the Vietnam era. In the Ken Burns documentary on Vietnam, an infantry platoon commander was quoted as follows, “Nineteen-year-old high school dropouts from the lowest socioeconomic rung of American society, they weren’t going to be rewarded for service in Vietnam, and yet their infinite patience, their loyalty to each other, their courage under fire was phenomenal. And you ask yourself,” he said, “how does America produce young men like this?”

Since then, we have adopted an all-volunteer military, so we have a highly motivated “warrior caste” that has performed with admirable dedication and bravery. The question is, as the Quinnipiac Poll queried, what would happen when volunteers are not enough and we need the general population to man the barricades?

If we, as the Poll suggests, may not have enough men willing to stand up and fight, we cannot say we haven’t been warned. A comprehensive study was conducted by the Y.M.C.A., Dartmouth Medical School and the Institute for American Values in 2003, titled Hardwired to Connect:  The New Scientific Case for Authoritative Communities, A Report to the Nation from the Commission on Children at Risk.

The report warned that one in five children in America is at scientific risk for emotional and physiological problems because of a “connection” crisis.  The report presented extensive scientific evidence that the human brain is hardwired for two fundamental kinds of connection: horizontally, in close relationships with other human beings (now severely vitiated with social media addiction); and vertically in family, moral, and spiritual meaning through a relationship with a transcendent divine being.

If the New Scientific Case for Authoritative Communities is true, and the scientific evidence is overwhelming, then, in allowing the continuing atrophy of all the mediating institutions in American life, we have been unwittingly practicing collective physiological, emotional, and spiritual child abuse on more than a generation of our children. 

The disturbing Quinnipiac Poll findings are one more piece of evidence of what happens when people no longer believe in themselves or their country. 

The corrosive and sulphuric critique of America being spawned by the purveyors of critical race theory are perhaps the fatal last dose of the poison that may yet destroy America, if not successfully countered.

In 1997 I was elected to the great honor of preaching the “Convention Sermon” for the Southern Baptist Convention’s annual meeting.  The opening line of my sermon was “if America dies, she will perish from self-inflicted wounds!”  I then followed with a sad, graphic list of the symptoms our society was presenting that it was in steep moral and spiritual decline, and that only a heaven-sent, Holy Spirit led, spiritual revival, which ripens into an awakening, and culminates in a Reformation, could reverse the decline.  I emphasized that our problems were God-sized problems and only God’s answers could solve them.

It was true then, it is true now, and it will be true tomorrow.  Let us all pray “God, send revival, and let it begin with me!”  

Dr. Richard Land, BA (Princeton, magna cum laude); D.Phil. (Oxford); Th.M (New Orleans Seminary). Dr. Land served as President of Southern Evangelical Seminary from July 2013 until July 2021. Upon his retirement, he was honored as President Emeritus and he continues to serve as an Adjunct Professor of Theology & Ethics. Dr. Land previously served as President of the Southern Baptist Convention's Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission (1988-2013) where he was also honored as President Emeritus upon his retirement. Dr. Land has also served as an Executive Editor and columnist for The Christian Post since 2011.

Dr. Land explores many timely and critical topics in his daily radio feature, “Bringing Every Thought Captive,” and in his weekly column for CP.

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