Address given by Sister Dew during the America's Freedom Festival Patriotic Service held in BYU's Marriott Center.
Good evening, my dear friends, and my brothers and sisters. It is an honor to be with you as we celebrate the birth of our nation.
I can still remember where I was when it really hit me—how grateful I was to be an American. I was 40,000 feet above the Pacific enroute home from southeast Asia. This wasn't my first trip abroad. Far from it. I'd had many international experiences and had always returned with a greater appreciation for home. But this time, I felt something different, something more. Somehow, the sequence of experiences I'd had on this trip had affected me deeply. Maybe it was seeing so much poverty. Maybe it was meeting so many children orphaned by war. Maybe it was all the people I'd seen who seemed to have no hope. Maybe it was all of the above.
During the long flight, with lots of time to think, I found myself vacillating between gratitude and guilt-gratitude for all I had and guilt because of all I had-until, that is, I had a strong and clear impression: I didn't need to feel guilty because of what I had. But because I had more-more opportunities, more privileges, more freedom—I was expected to do more. The phrase, "Unto whom much is given, much is required" (D&C 82:3) lit up my mind like a neon sign.
We who are citizens of this nation, which is the greatest in the history of the world, have simply been given more. Now, please don't misunderstand. I am not suggesting some kind of arrogant cultural superiority. I love and respect the peoples and cultures of the world. I have seen many of the world's beauties. In nation after nation, I've marveled at magnificent cultures and languages, majestic reminders of antiquity, and people everywhere who are gracious and inspiring and ingenious. My mother has stopped asking me about my trip whenever I return from abroad. Instead she tells me how it went: "I already know what you're going to say. You loved the people! You loved their culture. You can't wait to go back." And it's true. That is what I always say. Because I never lose my sense of awe at the basic wonder of people.
But that fact notwithstanding, there is simply no country that compares with the United States. There are reasons for this. America is a land of promise, a land choice above all others, founded by noble men inspired by God. America was not only founded by God but has been preserved by Him. Thus, we owe our privileges and prosperity, unequaled anywhere in the world, to Him. But with those privileges come great responsibilities — especially our responsibility to serve God and live as He would have us live. In short, this land's future is dependent upon the righteousness of its people. Which means that you and I hold the destiny of the United States of America in our hands.
What then are we to do? Let me illustrate with something my nephew Trevor said when he was about nine. As background, I should explain that for years my seventeen nieces and nephews have routinely and regularly prayed that their Old Maid Aunt would get married. (And I would just like to say that I think the Lord ought to respond, if for nothing else than to preserve the faith of these youth.) One morning I answered the phone to hear my brother, Trevor's father, on the other end, laughing. "I wish you had been here when Trevor blessed the food this morning," he said. "What did Trev say?" I asked, to which my brother responded. "Please bless Aunt Sheri to find a good husband who doesn't smoke, drink, say bad words, or. . .litter!"
Now, I invite you to consider just how profound Trevor's prayer was. Because there are philosophical ramifications to litter. What is litter? It's not just garbage, but garbage left rudely behind that someone else has to pick up. So when all is said and done, I hope the man I marry doesn't litter. Because there are all kinds of litter in this world, and I'm not just referring to gum wrappers. One morning not long ago I walked into my office and by 10:00 a.m. had managed to offend just about everyone who came within shouting distance. When I came to my senses and realized the trail of litter I was leaving behind me—a trail of ill will and hurt feelings—I retraced my steps and apologized, that day at laest picking up my own litter. We are all leaving a trail behind us. The question is, What kind of trail is it?
Trevor's prayer always makes me think about my grandparents, Charles and Maude Dew, who homesteaded our family farm nearly a century ago. With their two sons, they somehow survived the Depression, and the Dust Bowl, and scratched out a meager living on the Great Plains. My respect for their stamina only increased when I came across a letter Ezra Taft Benson received in 1959 while serving as Secretary of Agriculture—a letter that referred to, of all people, my grandparents. The writer of the letter related this: "During the past week-end, I. . .[visited the Dews'] farm and was thrilled with what I saw. West Kansas is. . .no place for a tenderfoot. It takes people who are strong both physically and spiritually to battle the farming conditions in that area. . . .I am writing this letter because I hope that. . .you will have an opportunity to. . .meet this family. You would recognize them as the kind of family that has built the farming areas of this country and you would be inspired by their strength." (Sam R. Carpenter to ETB, 1 December 1959.)
I mention this letter not to boast about my grandparents but because I believe they reflect the character of millions of everyday Americans who have made this country strong. Grandma and Grandpa didn't die rich or famous. They never made the nightly news or the cover of Time Magazine. But on that little farm on the prairie, they learned what all farmers learn naturally and what we all must learn in some way: that you can only reap what you sow. The Apostle Paul taught that "he which soweth sparingly shall reap also sparingly; and he which soweth bountifully shall reap also bountifully." (2 Corinthians 9:6.) Grandma and Grandpa planted seeds—literally and figuratively—that have reaped a bountiful harvest. We who descend from them have been shaped by the seeds of integrity and devotion they sowed. We are the beneficiaries of the trail they left behind them—a trail that, fortunately for us, was virtuous.
The cycle of sowing and reaping has been repeated again and again throughout the history of this nation. As the vanguard companies of Mormon pioneers made their epic trek to the Salt Lake Valley in the uncharted American West, they planted crops they would never harvest but that would sustain the wagon trains and handcart companies to follow.
Similarly, our Founding Fathers planted seeds of liberty and freedom that have reaped centuries of harvest for those of us fortunate enough to inherit the privileges and protections guaranteed by the Constitution.
The wealth of the United States does not lie in its stock market or entrepreneurial reservoir. America's wealth lies in its people-in us, and in the seeds we are sowing-which is something the French philosopher Alexis de Tocqueville observed more than 170 years ago. Said he: "I sought for the greatness and genius of America in her. . .fertile fields and boundless prairies, and it was not there; in her rich mines and her vast world commerce, and it was not there. Not until I went to the churches of America and heard her pulpits aflame with righteousness did I understand the secret of her genius and power. America is great because she is good, and if America ever ceases to be good, America will cease to be great." (Democracy in America, first published 1853; Bantam Classic Books, 2000.)
There is much evidence in this country of this goodness. In the aftermath of 9-11, citizens from coast to coast rallied to help, comfort, and dig through rubble. We'll never hear the words, "Let's roll!" without thinking of heroes who forced down their hijacked plane in a Pennsylvania field to preserve the lives of others elsewhere. We'll never forget the images of firemen charging up the Twin Towers stairways as thousands raced down. To quote Anne Frank, "In spite of everything, I still believe that people are really good at heart." (Quoted in Newsweek, 20 December 1999, 62.) And I do truly believe that most people are really good at heart.
However, there are worrisome signs that our collective moral fabric is unraveling. In recent years we have endured so many outrageous national scandals that obscene abuses of power and money seem almost ho-hum. Leaders at the highest levels of government have committed unspeakable breaches of integrity—and then lied until forced to confess. Executives in one corporation after another have "overstated earnings"—in other words, they've cooked the books-and bilked investors out of billions. Here are just a few of the most recent moral belly-flops.
The two top editors of a venerable newspaper resigned after a trail of journalistic fraud cast a shadow of mistrust on the paper. (New York Times, 6 June 2003; Time, 19 May 2002.)
The CEO of a media empire resigned after a federal grand jury indicted her on five criminal counts. (Wall Street Journal, 5 June 2003.)
A CFO in a major corporation was indicated on 100 charges of fraud, obstruction of justice, insider trading, and money laundering (Enron; USA Today, 20 May 2003); a governor is threatened with recall on charges of financial mismanagement; and a self-appointed moral crusader appears to have broken the public trust.
In another arena, no pun intended, three college coaches were fired for lying about everything from immoral liaisons to recruiting violations. In one conference alone, six of twelve schools are either on probation or under NCAA investigation, mostly for coaching misdeeds. (Time, 19 May 2003.) And, sadly, even a baseball hero was suspended after his corked bat shattered.
Regrettably, this brief listing doesn't expose even the tip of what is no doubt a massive iceberg. What trail are we as a people leaving behind us? What kind of harvest can we possibly expect to reap if we are increasingly sowing seeds of deception and deceit?
This is serious. James Madison, who is regarded as the father of the Constitution, put it this way: "We have staked the whole future of American civilization not upon the power of government-far from it. We have staked the future. . .upon the capacity of each. . .of us to govern ourselves according to the Ten Commandments of God." (Russ Walton, Biblical Principles of Importance to Godly Christians, New Hampshire: Plymouth Foundation, 1984, 361.) My dear friends, here is the sobering reality: Our Constitution was written for a moral people. It will not survive a people who collectively lose their virtue. In other words, if America ceases to be good, America will cease to be great.
We have our problems and we have them aplenty. Little by little, one misdeed, one deception, one person at a time, the character of the American people is being reshaped. Thus, if we are to change society, we must change ourselves. For one person can make a difference. God commanded one person—Noah—to build an ark to preserve his family and civilization. It was one woman, the Jewish Queen Esther, who ignored personal danger, spoke truth, and saved a people. Surely the words Mordecai spoke to her apply to us all: "Who knoweth whether thou art come to the kingdom for such a time as this?" (Esther 4:14.)
Each of us have a role to play in preserving this nation. The place to reform our country is not Washington, D. C.—though the capital could stand some reformation. The place to begin is with ourselves. If we want to preserve freedom as we know it, we must live righteously, for "righteousness exalteth a nation" (Proverbs 14:34). Or as John Adams said to his wife Abigail, "To be good, and to do good is all we have to do." (John Adams, Simon & Schuster, 2002, 170.) Which is not unlike what President George W. Bush said to a Joint Session of Congress nine days after the Twin Towers disaster: "I ask you to uphold the values of America, and remember why so many have come here. We are in a fight for our principles, and our first responsibility is to live by them."
America can be no stronger than the goodness of its people. So I repeat: What kind of trail are we leaving behind us? And what seeds are we sowing? May I suggest three seeds we must individually sow if we wish to collectively reap a bountiful national harvest. They are the seeds of integrity, selflessness, and devotion to God.
Number One. Integrity.
Integrity is the first rung on the character ladder, for where there is integrity, other virtues follow. Where there is no integrity, other virtues have no chance of developing.
Today there seem to be flagrant violations of integrity everywhere—the newsroom, the locker room, the board room, even the court room and school room. Spin doctors who can turn a clever phrase but whose regard for the truth is often tainted, seem to be everywhere. Just because someone can artfully express themselves doesn't mean they're worth listening to. "Spinning" used to be what happened in one of Disneyland's famous teacups, not what you did when you wanted to shade or shave the edges off the truth.
Just prior to the last presidential election, I was invited to address an east coast professional organization on the topic of leadership. The "jist" of my message was that true leaders embodied certain virtues—with the key virtue being integrity—because a man or woman who can't be trusted can't lead. I also admitted that the ongoing national debate about whether or not a leader should be expected to be honest had been, to me, absurd.
After the presentation, an accomplished businesswoman approached me. "You know," she said, "I've never thought about the connection between leadership and integrity. But I guess it really is impossible to lead people if they don't trust you."
It was everything I could do to not reply, "You must be kidding! You've never thought your leaders should tell the truth?" Tell me, Do you care if the person who controls your pension tells the truth? Do you care if your son's high school principal is honest about what is going on in his school? Do you care if your daughter's soccer coach is fair, or if companies who package your food adhere to FDA standards? Would you like to know that your surgeon didn't cheat his way through his residency? Do you care if your husband or wife or best friend tells you the truth?
Of course you do, because it is not possible to develop a relationship, any relationship— whether between husband/wife, parent/child, teacher/student, or business/customer—with someone you can't trust. There is a reason adultery is referred to as "cheating," because it constitutes such a cruel breach of trust. Trust is the keystone that holds every organization together-whether it is a marriage or a family or a business or a nation.
Our Founding Fathers clearly understood this. When they signed the Declaration of Independence, they pledged not only their lives and fortunes but their sacred honor. They didn't just moralize about integrity. They modeled it. Said one historian of George Washington, "He never lied, fudged, or cheated. . . .[He] came to stand for the new nation and its republican virtues, which was why he became our first President by unanimous choice." (To America, Simon & Schuster, 2002, 10.) Washington himself admitted, "I hope I shall always possess firmness and virtue enough to maintain what I consider the most enviable of all titles, the character of an 'Honest Man.'" (The Spirit of America, 220.)
John Adams felt similarly. He told his grandsons, "I had rather you should be worthy possessors of one thousand pounds honestly acquired by your own labor. . .than of ten millions by banks and tricks." (John Adams, 668-69.) On another occasion Adams declared, "I never swerved from any principle. . .to obtain a vote. I never sacrificed a friend or betrayed a trust." (John Adams, 595.) Which is perhaps why, upon his inauguration as second president, he was called "a man of incorruptible integrity." (John Adams, 470.)
Honest Abe's reputation was equally well-earned. One story is representative. At twenty-four, Lincoln was named postmaster of New Salem, Illinois, at an annual salary of $55.70. But the New Salem office closed before the year was out. It was several years before an agent arrived from Washington to claim the unearned balance of Lincoln's salary—a whopping $17—and by then, his law practice was floundering and Lincoln was broke. But when asked to produce the unearned back pay, Lincoln opened a trunk and removed a yellowed rag bound with string. Inside was the seventeen dollars. The agent was stunned to find the original money untouched. Lincoln said, simply, "I never use any man's money but my own." Imagine what such behavior would do to Wall Street, not to mention Main Street.
Lincoln's moral courage became legendary, for a reason he himself once explained: "The probability that we may fail in the struggle ought not to deter us from the support of a cause we believe to be just; it shall not deter me." (Gene Griessman, The Words Lincoln Lived By, Fireside, 1997, 19.)
Trust is earned one person at a time. Do you do what you say you will do? Can you keep a confidence? Do you tell the truth? Your word is who you are.
Job set the example. Even after losing his wealth, his health, and his family, he declared, "I will not remove mine integrity from me. My righteousness I hold fast, and will not let it go." (Job 27:5-6.) The men and women I admire most are those whose integrity is intact. I find it impossible to admire those whose integrity is not.
Everyone wishes to be dealt with honestly, for it is the only way we can build relation-ships that in turn build our society. And besides, as Mark Twain put it, "If you tell the truth, you don't have to remember anything."
Number Two. Selflessness.
Selfless service has been core to our nation from the beginning. Recently we have again seen dramatic examples of this, as men and women in uniform put their lives on the line to do for us what we were not in a position to do for ourselves. I'll never forget walking through the American Military Cemetery in Manila, where halfway around the world acre after acre of white crosses and Stars of David mark the graves of thousands of Americans who died defending our freedom. That beautiful cemetery in that hot, muggy, distant land felt like hallowed ground.
When in England prior to the recent war with Iraq, Secretary of State Colin Powell is reported to have been asked by the Archbishop of Canterbury if our plans for Iraq were just empire-building. Secretary Powell responded by saying: "Over the years the United States has sent many of its fine young men and women into great peril to fight for freedom beyond our borders. The only amount of land we have asked for is enough to bury those who did not return."
Our history is filled with sterling examples of selfless service. John Adams hinted at the sacrifice he and other Founding Fathers made in a letter to his posterity: "You will never know how much it cost [our] generation to preserve your freedom. I hope you will make good use of it! If you do not, I shall repent in Heaven that I ever took half the pains to preserve it!" (John Adams to Abigail, 1777; Words to Live By, 255.)
Today opportunities to serve one another are endless. There are causes every one of us can care about: school violence, the homeless, pornography, gangs, addiction and abuse in all their forms, and the list goes on and on. As President Bush said this year in his State of the Union address, "Sometimes it takes just one person in someone's life. I urge YOU to be that person."
We are each in a position to make the lives of others better, often in simple ways. For decades, through bouts of cancer and chemotherapy, every election day has found my mother on duty at the election board from before dawn to way past dusk-just like thousands of other Americans who facilitate our privilege to vote. When I asked mom why she has served on the election board for so long, she said, "They have needed help, and I have been able to help." Being willing to help is what makes America strong.
May I suggest, however, that the most crucial service any of us ever give is in our homes, for the family is the fundamental unit of our society. If the family fails, our country will fail.
President Gordon B. Hinckley, President of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, said: "I believe our problems, almost every one, arise out of the homes of the people. If there is to be a reformation, if there is to be a change, if there is to be a return to old and sacred values, it must begin in the home. It is here that truth is learned, that integrity is cultivated, that self-discipline is instilled, and that love is nurtured. . . .It is in the home that we learn the values by which we guide our lives. That home may be ever so simple. . ., but with a good father and a good mother, it can become a place of wondrous upbringing. . . .It is broken homes that lead to a breakup in society." (Ensign, November 1998.)
Study after study has confirmed that President Hinckley is exactly right. The proportion of children in broken families has more than quadrupled since 1950. (National Center for Health Statistics data series.) Today, only 42 percent of youth between 14-18 live in an intact, two-parent, married family. Children whose parents divorce are more likely to skip school, get drunk, hurt someone enough to need a doctor, steal, and lie. (National Longitudinal Survey of Youth, 1996, The Heritage Foundation.) On the other hand, teenagers whose parents worship together regularly are far less likely to engage in premarital sex. (National Longitudinal Survey of Adolescent Health, 1995; Center for Data Analysis, The Heritage Foundation.)
These trends are revealing. Clearly, the family is the best place to teach and model the virtue of personal virtue in all its forms. When Thomas Jefferson's wife died, his daughters Martha and Mary were 10 and 4. He relied on Martha to help him teach Mary, telling her, "Teach [Mary] above all things to be good: because without that we can be neither valued by others or ourselves." (Spirit of America, 223.)
We haven't time this evening to detail the contemporary assaults on the family. But here is the bottom line: A village may enrich the life of a child, but a village can never take the place of a mother and father who are faithful to each other and dedicated to raising that child. Marriage between a husband and wife is the best environment in which to raise healthy, happy children who become healthy, happy, contributing adults. Thus, there may not be anything we can do to have a more dramatic effect on the strength of our country than to strengthen our families. And it can happen in simple ways.
My homesteading grandmother, who died when I was eleven, has influenced me my entire life. In Grandma's life history she wrote about the accidental death of her 32-year-old son. "This has been a very hard thing for us to take" she wrote. "It has left a great vacancy that cannot be filled in this life." It was, however, the juxtaposition of Grandma's next sentence that moved me. "But God has been good to us. And I wish to say for the benefit of our posterity, do not ever be slack in your duties. . . .We must always be found defending truth. And we must found teaching it by our every word and action."
I came across these pages recently during a week when I'd had one disillusioning episode after another. I was so discouraged. I felt spent-until I read Grandma's words. Her faith strengthened my faith. Her resolve reinforced mine. Her determination to go on despite despair inspired me to go on. Once again, I harvested seeds she planted long ago.
The family should be where we replenish our emotional supply, for it is the best place to find the courage to be more and do more than we can be or do on our own. Every time a family is strengthened, this nation grows stronger.
Number Three. Devotion to God.
I can vividly remember when history came alive for me—when I realized history was not just obscure facts in dusty old books, but that it was about real people. I was in Istanbul looking at the ancient wall that surrounds that city and that was built during the Ottoman Empire. I found myself wanting to know more about the people who had lived there and then, and what motivated them to build such a wall.
I love trying to understand what motivates people—and particularly those who laid the foundations of this country, for our history is a spiritually stirring saga. There are some today who feel God shouldn't play a role in our public lives, but anyone who knows our history realizes our Founding Fathers didn't see it that way at all. Here is just some of the evidence that this is so: Columbus recorded this: "Our Lord unlocked my mind, sent me upon the sea, and gave me fire for the deed. Those who heard of my enterprise called it foolish, mocked me, and laughed. But who can doubt but that the Holy Ghost inspired me?" (Jacob Wasserman, Columbus, Don Quixote of the Seas, trans. Eric Sutton, 19-20.)
Most who came to this new world believed it had been reserved by God for His purposes. The Pilgrims of Plymouth, the Calverts of Maryland, Roger Williams, William Penn, and many others had deep religious convictions that drove them to this land. John Winthrop preached that his people had covenanted with God to obtain a new place and government. (See Andrew Cunningham McLaughlin, The Foundations of American Constitutionalism, NYU Press, 1932, 33.) And when the Pilgrims landed in this hemisphere, Governor William Bradford recorded, "They fell upon their knees and blessed the God of Heaven." (In God, Family, Country, 115.)
Later, on the eve of the Revolution, Patrick Henry declared that "there is a just God who presides over the destinies of nations, and who will raise up friends to fight our battles for us." (Quoted in This Nation Shall Endure, 68-69.)
And raise up friends He did, for that ragtag band of Colonists should never have won the Revolutionary War. They were outmanned, outmaneuvered, outsmarted, and outgunned again and again by a superior British army. Yet they prevailed. Surely the only explanation is the intervention of God.
That is certainly to Whom George Washington attributed the victory, stating in his first Inaugural Address: "No people can be bound to acknowledge and adore the invisible hand, which conducts the Affairs of men, more than the People of the United States. Every step. . .seems to have been distinguished by some token of providential agency." (The Spirit of America, ed., William. J. Bennett, Simon & Schuster, 1997, 381-82.)
A few years later, when a deadlock gripped the Constitutional Convention, Benjamin Franklin urged that "henceforth prayers imploring the assistance of Heaven, and its blessings on our deliberation, be held in this Assembly every morning before we proceed to business." (Notes of the Debates in the Federal Convention of 1787 Reported by James Madison, Athens, Ohio: Ohio University Press, 1966, xxiii.) The Constitution that resulted from that convention was itself revolutionary. Wrote convention delegate Charles Pickney: "When the great work [of the Constitution] was done. . .I was. . .struck with amazement. Nothing less than that superintending hand of Providence, that so miraculously carried us through the war. . .,could have brought it about so complete." (Essays on the Constitution, ed. P. L. ford, 1892, 412.)
Indeed, the Constitution—which is the most significant legislative document ever adopted by a people—exceeded the genius of the delegates. Surely it was the work of principled men inspired by God-men who not only believed in God, but believed God was guiding them.
This rich heritage of divine guidance makes some developments today hard to understand. I cite as an example the recent court decision banning the Pledge of Allegiance from schoolrooms because of its reference to God. Of course, this wasn't the first. A few years ago the state of New Jersey passed a law deleting any mention of God from courtroom oaths. And not long thereafter, another judge banned Bibles for delivering such oaths because "you-know-who [was] mentioned inside." (Wall Street Journal, 31 July 1996.)
Such developments are frightening. Those who insist that God has no place in our public discourse simply do not understand the fundamental premise upon which this country was founded and upon which it depends. Either that, or they're just plain evil—and perhaps belong on President Bush's list of evildoers. Freedom isn't always lost on the battlefield.
Of course, none of this is new. During the darkest days of the Civil War, President Lincoln called for a national day of fasting and prayer, declaring: "We have been recipients of the choicest bounties of Heaven;. . .we have grown in number, wealth, and power as no other Nation has ever grown. But we have forgotten God. We have forgotten the gracious hand which. . . enriched and strengthened us, and we have vainly imagined. . .that all these blessings were produced by some superior wisdom and virtue of our own. Intoxicated with. . .success we have become. . .too proud to pray to the God that made us. It behooves us. . .to humble ourselves before the offended power." Lincoln concluded by stating, simply: "Those nations only are blessed whose God is the Lord." (Quoted in John Wesley Hill, Abraham Lincoln: Man of God, New York, G. P. Putnam's Sons, 1927, 391; also This Nation Shall Endure, 80-81, 390.)
I wonder what Abraham Lincoln would think of us today. Have we too become intoxicated with our wealth and world domination? Have we become so arrogant that we actually believe we are the ones who have engineered our prosperity? Have we been given so much for so long that we take our privileges for granted? Have we become so self-important and sophisticated that we have forgotten God?
Such trends and attitudes, if they persist unchecked, do not bode well, for as Washington said: "The. . . smiles of heaven can never be expected on a nation that disregards the eternal rules of order and right, which heaven itself has ordained." (Harvard Classics, vol. 43, 243.)
More recently, President Gordon B. Hinckley said this: "We are forgetting God, whose commandments we have put aside. . . .In all too many ways we have substituted human sophistry for the wisdom of the Almighty. . . .Can we expect peace and prosperity. . .while turning our backs on the source of our strength?" (The Spirit of America, Bookcraft, 1998.)
The answer is no. President Lincoln admitted, "I have felt [God's] hand upon me in great trials and submitted to His guidance, and I trust that as He shall further open the way I will be ready to walk therein, relying on His help and trusting in His. . .wisdom." (See Carl Sandburg, Abraham Lincoln: The Prairie Years and The War Years, 1954, Harcourt Brace, 578.)
More recently, some have criticized President Bush for openly acknowledging his dependance upon God. But I must say that I find comfort in knowing that the man who can send us to war is humble enough to pray about it. Those who look to God, believe in Him, and serve Him, are simply doing what our Founding Fathers did-and making our country stronger in the process. Is it time for all of us to once again humble ourselves before God? For make no mistake about it: We are one nation under God.
A couple of years ago I had the poignant experience of visiting the Hiroshima Peace Park. I was accompanied by two missionaries from my Church. As emotional as the memorial was, what touched me most was the fact that Sister Nawahine from Pearl Harbor, Hawaii and Sister Kato from Tokyo, Japan—whose countries' bitter war led to the devastation at Hiroshima—toured the park arm in arm, the best of friends. That day, I saw firsthand that devotion to God can heal all wounds, bridge all cultures, and bless us with peace and freedom.
We are reaping benefits of the seeds of peace and freedom sown by our Founding Fathers and others who forged a stunning trail of integrity, selflessness, and devotion to God. Which again prompts the questions, What trail are we leaving behind us? And what seeds are we sowing?
None of us live only for ourselves. Everything we do affects others. Our collective breaches of integrity and misdeeds could eventually bring our nation down. And likewise, our collective virtue could make America stronger than it has ever been.
I like what Abigail Adams wrote her husband John during a troubling time: "You cannot be. . .an inactive spectator. We have too many high sounding words, and too few actions that correspond with them." (John Adams, 21.)
Those of us who know we are living in a land created by God for the benefit of a moral people cannot afford to be inactive spectators if we wish to preserve the destiny of this nation. Every man and woman, boy and girl, can make a difference. Every young adult. Every family. Homemakers and CEOs and professors. Those who are wealthy and those who are not. Black and white and brown. Old and young and in-between. Those who were born here and those who have been adopted into the American family. Every one of us can make a difference by the seeds we sow and the trail we leave behind us. Those who live with integrity, who give of themselves, and who never forget that God is the Presiding Authority in the universe, are destined to do good and be good. And that is what will continue to make America great.
I am not calling tonight for some unrealistic form of perfection, but I do believe it is possible to be perfectly honest every day. I believe it is possible to live so that others can trust our motives, our judgment, and our word. I believe it is possible to forget ourselves and make life better for someone else through some kind of ongoing selfless service—especially service in our families. And I believe it is not only possible but vital that we strengthen our devotion to God by doing a better job of living as His children ought to live.
There is a statement inscribed on a wall in the Library of Congress that says: "The history of the world is the biography of great men." And I would add, great women. Note that it doesn't say famous men or women. Wealthy men or women. Or gorgeous men or women. It says great men and women. Which I take to mean, in the spirit of de Tocqueville, good men and women.
I will never forget the first time I saw the Lincoln Memorial. It was after dark, and as I climbed the stairs leading up to the monument, what I saw caught my breath: a majestic statue of our sixteenth president, seated as though presiding over the whole of Washington, D. C. I had read enough about Lincoln to know that nothing in his life had come easy. I knew he'd felt alone and stood alone again and again. Which is probably why my eyes filled with tears as I read the inscription engraved above his head: "In this temple, as in the hearts of the people for whom he saved the union, the memory of Abraham Lincoln is enshrined forever."
It is not surprising that it was Lincoln who, in the midst of the Civil War, described the situation in which we once again find ourselves: "We cannot escape history. We. . .will be remembered in spite of ourselves. . . .We know how to save the Union. The world knows we. . .know how to save it. . . .We shall nobly save, or meanly lose, the last best, hope of earth." (As quoted in David Herbert McDonald, Lincoln, Simon & Schuster, 1995, 398.)
You and I cannot escape history, either. We will be remembered in spite of ourselves. We do know how to preserve this union. We can do our part by living with integrity, serving others, and devoting ourselves to God.
During this week of celebration, as you consider what it means to be a citizen of this great nation, I hope you'll think about the wise words of a terrific nine-year-old as he prayed for his old aunt. I hope you'll think long and hard about the trail you're leaving behind, the seeds you are sowing, and the seeds you wish to sow. And I hope you might join with me in accepting the invitation to identify one way you can live with greater integrity, more selflessness, and greater respect for God.
May we each go forward, determined to keep America great by keeping America good. God will help us. We are His children. This is His nation. And if we will turn to Him, He Himself will help us preserve this great land of liberty.
In the name of Jesus Christ. Amen.