July 4, 1993
WHAT MAKES A NATION GREAT
“Righteousness exalts a nation, but sin is a disgrace to any people.” (Proverbs 14:34)
In 1940, when classroom teachers were asked to name the greatest threats to the educational process, their number one concern was talking out of turn. Today, teachers say the number one problem is drug abuse. Number two in 1940 was chewing gum; today it’s alcohol abuse. Number three fifty years ago was making noise; number three today is pregnancy. The fourth most pressing problem back then was running in the halls; today it is suicide. Number five, six, and seven on the list in 1940 were getting out of line, wearing improper clothing, and not putting paper in the wastebasket; today they are rape, robbery, and assault.
Clearly, a lot has changed in the past fifty years. In his recent book, Why Johnny Can’t Tell Right From Wrong, William Kilpatrick, a professor of education at Boston College, helps us get to the root of some of those changes. It’s a book that every parent and every citizen should read. Kilpatrick shows how our schools and our society are more eager to help students do their own thing than help them choose right and reject wrong.
When the students of a high school class in a Toronto suburb were asked to express their views on morality, most of them said that morality was purely personal. One boy put it this way:
Moral values cannot be taught and people must learn to use what works for them. In other words, “whatever gets you through the night, it’s alright.” The essence of civilization is not moral codes but individualism… The only way to know when your values are getting sounder is when they please you more.
“You’ve got to please yourself”–that’s the philosophy of more and more students, and it’s no accident. It’s central to the official school curriculum. To take just one example, the widely used sex education textbook Changing Bodies, Changing Lives tells students: “If you feel your parents are overprotective … or if you feel they don’t want you to be sexual at all until some distant time, you may feel you have to tune out their voice entirely.” The textbook goes on to say, “Many Catholics, Protestants, Jews, and Muslims believe sex outside marriage is sinful. You will have to decide for yourself how important these messages are for you.”
Besides informing students of their right to ignore parents and churches, the textbook opens a chapter by saying, “Our main aim in this section is for you to feel good about your sexuality and what you do with it.” It then provides explicit portrayals of all kinds of heterosexual and homosexual activity, and after describing the various options, it says, “But when the moment comes you are the one who has to decide.”
Maybe that’s the only kind of education that can be considered constitutional these days. In a recent court decision, District Judge Frank Thaxton of Shreveport, Louisiana ruled that students must not be taught that they should abstain from sex before marriage. According to Judge Thaxton, schools that teach abstinence are teaching a ‘religion,’ and so he granted an injunction to stop teachers from urging their students to save themselves for marriage.
The American Civil Liberties Union insists that it’s not even right for a teacher to say that marriage is a traditional value. An ACLU memorandum stated, “It is our position that teaching that monogamous, heterosexual intercourse within marriage is a traditional American value is an unconstitutional establishment of a religious doctrine in public schools.”
This is all part of an ongoing trend. Already, in both Canada and the United States, the courts have banned prayer from schools; they’ve ruled that a teacher can’t have a Bible on her desk; and now, apparently, it’s too religious even to say that marriage is a good thing and a traditional value. We’ve arrived at the point where it’s wrong for the Gideons to distribute Bibles in schools, but it’s wonderful for Planned Parenthood to pass out condoms.
Those are just some of the changes in public policy that we’ve seen in the last thirty years. And what else has been happening during that same period? There are now more than five times as many children born to unwed mothers as there were in 1960, and four times as many children on welfare, in spite of the fact that there were also over thirty million babies. What’s more, we now have almost five times as much violent crime, and the teen suicide rate has tripled. Meanwhile, the average scores on standardized tests have plummeted. No wonder teachers have bigger worries than students talking in class and chewing gum!
In Proverbs 14:34 the Bible says, “Righteousness exalts a nation, but sin is a disgrace to any people.” We’re certainly experiencing the second half of that statement these days. Sin is disgracing us. We can be grateful for the freedoms and opportunities we enjoy in this country, but we also need to take stock of where our nation is at, and where it’s heading. Right now, we seem to be heading deeper into sin and into the disgrace that goes with it.
But it doesn’t have to be that way, and I don’t intend to dwell only on the negative. God doesn’t just tell us that sin ruins a people; he also tells us what makes a nation great.
When we think of what makes a nation great, we may think of things like a good education system, a strong military, a thriving economy, lofty ideals like freedom and equality, great leaders, or maybe some combination of these. No doubt these things are important, but according to the Bible, what really makes a nation great can be summed up in one word: righteousness. “Righteousness exalts a nation, but sin is a disgrace to any people.” All the other things that make a nation great depend on righteousness.
Take education. It’s obviously important in the development of a great nation, but only if it’s education in righteousness. Otherwise, it does more harm than good. Many public schools have used the so-called “values clarification” approach to drug education and sex education, an approach that downplays external moral standards and authority figures, and emphasizes personal feelings and discussions with fellow students.
And what happens? Studies show that students who take part in drug prevention programs using this approach are actually more likely to start using drugs than those from control groups who had no drug education whatsoever. In the same way, students who take part in public school sex education have been found to have a higher rate of pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases than those who had no sex education at all. Even Planned Parenthood’s own studies found that its school-based clinics at best had no effect on sexual activity, pregnancy, and sexually transmitted diseases, and at worst led to an increase. In short, education without righteousness is part of the problem rather than the solution.
When education promotes righteousness, it is also promoting the very conditions that make a good education possible. A society that honors marriage and promotes abstinence outside of marriage provides the best environment for children to learn and mature. The ACLU can complain all it wants that it’s religious discrimination for schools to teach monogamous, heterosexual marriage as a traditional value, but the fact remains that, overall, students with a father and a mother who stay together do far better in school and in life than those from single-parent situations.
Kids from two-parent families are far less likely to grow up in poverty. They have a much easier time concentrating on schoolwork than kids who are trying to adjust to the presence of their mother’s most recent lover. They are less likely to join a gang or use drugs. And where a mother does find herself raising a child without the help of a husband, her child’s chances of success increase dramatically where there are at least grandparents who are faithfully married to provide added support and stability.
Solid families and safe classrooms are essential to a positive learning environment. Where our schools are in trouble, the biggest problem isn’t a lack of funding. It’s a lack of fathers. It’s not a shortage of money. It’s a shortage of morality.
Righteousness in sex, marriage, and family life produces the kind of society where education can flourish; and righteousness also helps education by arousing a love of truth and by helping students to integrate their knowledge: to see everything they learn, not just as isolated facts and irrelevant trivia, but as aspects of a meaningful whole, in light of their relationship to their Creator. As God tells us in the Bible, “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom.”
Righteousness in education exalts a nation. If this nation is to have a bright future, we must teach students to listen to God’s will for them. I know that in practice this isn’t a simple issue, since we value religious freedom and our government avoids favoring any particular religion. So maybe the solution isn’t to put prayer and biblical teaching back into public schools, though that would make more sense than continuing to use public funds for atheist schools when the vast majority believe in God. Perhaps, though, it’s time to rethink entirely the relationship between government and schools.
Since the government won’t promote righteousness, and since righteousness is so important for education, maybe it’s time for government to get out of the education business, or at least to relinquish its monopoly. If education is to be publicly funded, why not use those funds to give parents their own choice of schools. Then all families, rich or poor, could afford to send their children to schools that can openly provide instruction in righteousness. Whatever we do, we certainly can’t continue on the path we’ve been following, not if we want the kind of education that makes a nation great. Righteousness exalts a nation; education without righteousness doesn’t.
As we think about what makes a nation great, another thing that often comes to mind is its ability to use force. After all, a country needs enough firepower to stand up for itself, and if it’s not a major power, it should do the next best thing and form alliances with nations that do have a strong military.
Once again, though, it’s righteousness that makes a nation great, not arsenals and alliances. The Bible says, “No king is saved by the size of his army; no warrior escapes by his great strength… But the eyes of the Lord are on those who fear him, on those whose hope is in his unfailing love, to deliver them from death and keep them alive in famine” (Psalm 33:16, 18-19). Ultimately, God controls the fate of nations, and those who rely only on raw power are doomed.
Hitler developed a great military machine, and he expected his Third Reich to last a thousand years. It lasted twelve. The Soviet Union built up an awesome array of weapons, but it crumbled anyway. And closer to home, the United States and its allies have often seen plans backfire and influence diminish in places where policies were based more on military aid and power politics than on justice. Just look at Vietnam, military aid to the Shah of Iran, or the years of supporting Saddam Hussein’s tyranny.
That’s just some of the observable evidence that raw power can’t make a nation great. Beyond all that stands the fact that God himself is the supreme power above all governments. He can increase their power, or he can remove it completely. As the Bible says, “…the Most High is sovereign over the kingdoms of men and gives them to anyone he wishes” (Daniel 4:17). No amount of military power can rescue a nation if God decides to bring it down.
A nation is on its way to greatness when enough of its people can echo the words of Psalm 20:7, “Some trust in chariots and some in horses, but we trust in the name of the Lord our God.” Some trust in missiles and some trust in police units, but we trust in the Lord our God. “Righteousness exalts a nation.”
Still another thing that comes to mind when we think about what makes a nation great is its economy. We tend to think that a great nation is a prosperous nation. But here too, a certain level of righteousness is essential to continued prosperity. Now of course there are plenty of people who get rich, not because they are righteous, but because they are master manipulators. But the overall economy of a nation depends to a large degree on righteousness, both for economic growth and economic stability. The growth of a nation’s economy depends on the virtues of hard work and individual initiative and self-control. Widespread laziness, dishonesty, shoddy workmanship, and drunkenness weaken an economy. At the same time, for an economic system to remain stable, it must treat workers fairly and provide a helping hand to the disadvantaged and the unemployed. Any system that excludes and degrades too many people is in constant danger of being overthrown.
But beyond these obvious connections between righteousness and a nation’s economic wellbeing, there’s the simple fact that ultimately, God is in charge. He can either grant prosperity or withhold it. When too many citizens have too little regard for God or for righteousness, he can bring the economy to ruin. Then again, he may allow people to be rich but not enjoy it. They make lots of money and have all sorts of luxuries, and yet they’re never satisfied. They’re rich but miserable, trapped by boredom and addiction, and depression.
Contrast that with what the Bible says about a nation that is living under God’s blessing. Psalm 144 says,
Then our sons in their youth will be like well-nurtured plants, and our daughters will be like pillars carved to adorn a palace. Our barns will be filled with every kind of provision. Our sheep will increase by thousands, by tens of thousands in our fields; our oxen will draw heavy loads. There will be no breaching of walls, no going into captivity, no cry of distress in our streets. Blessed are the people of whom this is true; blessed are the people whose God is the Lord (Psalm 144:12-15).
We’ve looked at education, power, and money, and we’ve seen that without righteousness, none of these is anything to brag about. According to Jeremiah 9:23-24,
This is what the Lord says: “Let not the wise man boast of his wisdom or the strong man boast of his strength or the rich man boast of his riches, but let him who boasts boast about this: that he understands and knows me, that I am the Lord, who exercises kindness, justice, and righteousness on earth, for in these I delight,” declares the Lord.
Ultimately, righteousness exalts a nation–righteousness makes a nation great–because righteousness delights God, and he’s the only source of true greatness.
What this nation needs more than anything else, then, is a great revival of righteousness among its citizens. The more citizens live righteous lives, the more a nation is exalted. The more citizens wallow in sin, the more a nation disgraces itself. “Righteousness exalts a nation, but sin is a disgrace to any people.”
But that raises a difficult issue. We’re a nation of people who value our freedom: the freedom to express ourselves, the freedom to make our own choices, the freedom to choose our own leaders. And to people who value freedom, all this talk about righteousness sounds threatening. We don’t want a government that forces a certain moral code on everyone or forces everyone to adopt the same set of religious beliefs. We don’t want inquisitions or ayatollahs–we want freedom.
Well, let’s look at the relationship between righteousness and freedom. In the first place, when God says that righteousness exalts a nation, it doesn’t mean that a nation’s government enforces every detail of righteousness with an iron fist. It’s necessary to enforce certain laws, of course, but when righteousness exalts a nation, it means that the people of a nation are for the most part righteous people of their own free will. They are people of righteous character. A government might be able to squelch sin in certain ways, but it can never produce true righteousness in its citizens. Only God can do that.
And that brings us to the next point. Righteousness isn’t the enemy of freedom; it’s the foundation for freedom. Freedom is possible only as long as enough people are using their freedom responsibly. We can allow freedom of speech to neo-Nazis only as long as most citizens voluntarily reject such bigotry. Otherwise, freedom would disappear. We can permit sexual freedom and continue to have a strong social structure only as long as most people voluntarily are committed to marriage. Our inner cities are an example of what happens when that’s no longer true. It’s no longer freedom but anarchy and violence and fear. Freedom without righteousness becomes chaos.
There is no substitute for righteousness. All the government programs in the world can’t halt the deterioration of a society where too many people want freedom without responsibility. A superb system can’t make up for sinful citizens. By the way, that’s one reason it’s foolish to say that a politician’s personal sins are irrelevant to public policy. What you often get are leaders who (in the words of T.S. Eliot) are “dreaming of a system so perfect that no one will need to be good.” They look for political and economic solutions even to problems that are basically moral.
One more point about the relationship between freedom and righteousness: Freedom without righteousness isn’t really freedom at all. As William Kilpatrick writes,
For a society that babbles incessantly about choices, ours seems to be able to exercise precious little freedom when it comes to making them. Judging by statistics, this may be the most compulsive and addictive society ever to have stepped onto the stage of history. The list of addictions not only includes alcohol, tobacco, and drugs but extends to gambling, eating, shopping, and sex (p. 98).
Freedom without righteousness leads to addiction and slavery.
Righteousness exalts a nation by providing the context within which freedom is even possible. Freedom in your personal life and freedom in our nation’s political life can continue only if we don’t use that freedom to indulge in sin.
True freedom comes in knowing God through Jesus Christ, and in following his teaching. Jesus said, “If you hold to my teaching, you are really my disciples. Then you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.” Freedom without Jesus is the freedom to make a mess of your life. As Jesus put it, “I tell you the truth, anyone who sins is a slave to sin.” However, says Jesus, “if the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed ” (John 8:31-32,34,36). Jesus can set you free from sinful compulsions by forgiving your past and offering you a fresh start, and by giving you the power through his Spirit to live in a new way. Your freedom and happiness depend far more on your relationship with God than on any politician or political system.
Whenever we have national elections and choose new leaders, we sense that it’s a moment of great importance. And it’s true, government does play an important role. But a change in national leadership isn’t what can change your life or turn the nation around. God tells us in Psalm 118:9, “It is better to trust in the Lord than to trust in princes.” Jesus Christ is the one who can make a real difference in your life. Likewise, the thing that turns a nation around isn’t first of all new political leadership but a massive turning back to God. New leadership can’t help us if we remain the same old nation.
“Righteousness exalts a nation, but sin is a disgrace to any people.” We need righteousness in more and more citizens, the kind that comes not first of all from legislation, but from really knowing Christ and following the Scriptures. Whatever need there might be for political reform, there’s an even greater need for spiritual revival. And that revival must begin with you and me.
Lord Most High, you are great, and you reign forever. You’ve placed us in a land of freedom and opportunity, and we’re grateful for that, but we also confess that we’ve misused these privileges. Forgive our sins and heal our land. Turn the people of this nation back to you one heart at a time; transform our the institutions of our society so that they express justice and compassion; and make this a nation great in righteousness, through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
By David Feddes. Originally broadcasted on the Back to God Hour and published in The Radio Pulpit.