Degree by Degree

Four decades ago a U.S. president was beamed into the homes of American citizens to deliver what one historian has called, “The greatest moral appeal from a sitting president since Abraham Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address.” That President was Jimmy Carter, and that moral appeal was entitled, “The Crisis of Confidence.” 

He said, in part: “Why have we not been able to get together as a nation to resolve our serious problems? It’s clear that the true problems of our nation are much deeper…All the legislation in the world can’t fix what’s wrong with America. What you see too often is a system of government twisted and pulled in every direction by hundreds of well-financed and powerful special interests. You see every extreme position defended to the last vote, almost to the last breath by one unyielding group or another.

“The path I’ve warned about tonight leads to fragmentation and self-interest. Down that road lies a mistaken idea of freedom, the right to grasp for ourselves some advantage over others. That path would be one of constant conflict between narrow interests ending in chaos and immobility. It is a certain route to failure.”

President Carter’s words have held up ominously well over the years, as his warning has become our reality. Of course, the “fragmentation and self-interest,” the “right to grasp for ourselves some advantage over others,” didn’t happen overnight. Rather, it has been a glacial slide toward the moral abyss, a slow erosion of ethics, cooperation, and compassion. 

Like the instructive frog placed in a kettle of lukewarm water, if the temperature is raised bit by bit over an extended period of time, the frog, so it is said, will remain in the water until it is boiled alive. This is how empires fall, how great experiments in self-rule come crashing to earth: Degree by warming degree, while those in danger fail to lower the temperature. 

Abraham Lincoln, previously mentioned, knew this. Twenty-five years before the first shot of the Civil War was fired he said: “Shall we expect some transatlantic military giant, to step across the Ocean, and crush us at a blow? Never! Where then is the danger? It will spring up amongst us…If destruction be our lot, we must ourselves be its author and finisher.” Simply, our greatest threat rests not across a border or across the sea, for we are our own worst enemy. 

What are people of faith to do? We must rally, not to politicians, but to principle; regain our consciences; employ with vigilance the Great Commandment; resurrect the virtues of sacrifice, unselfishness, and courage; and in the words of the Jewish prophet, “Learn to do good, seek justice, and help the oppressed.” 

This is Christ-shaped action, much more than “thoughts and prayers.” To quote Croatian theologian Miroslav Volf: “There is something deeply hypocritical about praying for a problem you are unwilling to resolve;” but resolving our serious problems is the only chance we have.