Righteousness exalts a nation, but sin is a disgrace to any people (Proverbs 14:34).

Back in 1940, classroom teachers were asked to name the biggest threats to the educational process. Their number one concern was talking out of turn. Today, the number one problem is drug abuse. Number two in 1940 was chewing gum; today it’s alcohol abuse. Number three was making noise; today it’s pregnancy. The fourth most pressing problem back then was running in the halls; today it’s suicide. Numbers five, six, and seven on the list in 1940 were getting out of line, wearing improper clothing, and not putting paper in the wastebasket; numbers five, six, and seven today are rape, robbery, and assault.

Now, let’s not pretend everything was perfect back in “the good old days.” But let’s also not pretend that nothing has changed for the worse. William Kilpatrick tries to get at the root of some of those changes in his book, Why Johnny Can’t Tell Right From Wrong. Kilpatrick says that instead of setting high standards and helping students to choose right and reject wrong, our schools and our society tell students to do their own thing.

When students of a high school class in a Toronto suburb were asked 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. … 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 often part of the official curriculum. To take just one example, a widely used sex education textbook 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 book 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.” In other words, parents and religion aren’t important if you decide they’re not.

The main thing is that you do your own thing and feel good about it. 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. After showing the various options, it says, “When the moment comes you are the one who has to decide.”

Some people even seem to think it’s against the law for a public school teacher to mention any standard besides “Do your own thing.” You shouldn’t even make the obvious statement that marriage is a traditional value. The American Civil Liberties Union says in a memorandum, “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.”

There’s an ongoing trend in both Canada and the United States to rid schools of religion and of all moral values that have any connection with religion. Courts have banned prayer from the schools. They’ve ruled that a teacher can’t have a Bible on her desk. Now, apparently, it’s bad even to say that marriage is a traditional value.

Meanwhile, as all this has been happening, standardized test scores have dropped over the years. But so what? The testing agency had a simple solution. It revised its calculation of test scores in a way that automatically added an average of 70 points to each score. Rather than improve the students, we lower the standards and change the scoring. That way we can all still feel good about ourselves.

And what we do with academic standards, we do with moral standards. If we don’t measure up, we lower the standard instead of admitting our failure and seeking to change. But no matter how much we try to lower God’s standard of right and wrong in order to feel good about ourselves, we can’t change the results of immoral behavior.

If we choose not to be good, the results are unavoidable and devastating. 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 more than forty million babies killed through abortion during that time. What’s more, we now have almost five times as much violent crime, and the teen suicide rate has tripled.

Something is eating away at us. Before it’s too late, we need to recognize what ruins a nation and what makes a nation great. The Bible sums it up in Proverbs 14:34, “Righteousness exalts a nation, but sin is a disgrace to any people.” We’re certainly experiencing the second half of that statement: sin is disgracing us. We can be grateful for freedoms and opportunities, especially when we’ve just celebrated a national holiday, but we also need to take stock of where our nation is heading. We seem to be heading deeper into sin and the disgrace that goes with it.

But it doesn’t have to be that way. God doesn’t just tell us that sin ruins a people; he also tells us what makes a nation great. Righteousness exalts a nation. If we turn from doing our own thing back to God, if we turn from sin to righteousness, then this can yet be a great nation. God says in the Bible, “If my people, who are called by my name, will humble themselves and pray and seek my face and turn from their wicked ways, then will I hear from heaven and will forgive their sins and will heal their land” (2 Chronicles 7:14).

Let’s look at what it takes to be a great nation. When you think of a great nation, you may think of things like good education, or a strong military, or a thriving economy, or ideals like freedom and equality, or 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, on faithfulness to God and his ways.


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 moral standards and authority figures and emphasizes personal feelings and discussions with fellow students.

And what happens? Studies have found that students who take part in drug prevention programs using this approach are actually more likely to start using drugs than those who have no drug education whatsoever. In the same way, students who take part in public school sex education have a higher rate of pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases than those who have 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. Students with a father and a mother who stay together do better in school and in life than most students from single-parent situations. Solid families and safe classrooms are essential to good education. Where our schools are in trouble, the biggest problem isn’t usually so much a lack of funding as a lack of fathers. It’s not a shortage of money but of morality.

Kids from stable, 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 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 the grandparents are at least faithfully married and provide added support and stability.

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 bits of trivia, but as aspects of a meaningful whole, in relation to their Creator, and in light of the fact that in Jesus Christ all things hold together.

If this nation is to have a bright future, we must teach students to know God and to listen to God’s will for them. If government-run schools can’t do this, then we’d better find some other way to educate our children, whether in private Christian schools or home schooling. Whatever we do, we can’t continue on the path of atheist education with no concern for righteousness, not if we want children to have the kind of education that makes a nation great. Righteousness in education exalts a nation; education without righteousness is a disgrace.


Another thing that often comes to mind when we think about a great nation is military strength. A great nation needs a strong national defense. It needs enough firepower to stand up for itself, and if can’t get a strong military, it should do the next best thing and form alliances with nations that do have a strong military. Or so we think.

Once again, though, it’s righteousness that makes a nation great, not weapons or 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. No amount of military power can rescue a nation if God decides to bring it down. Hitler developed a great military machine and 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. Even the United States and its allies have seen plans backfire and influence diminish when policies were based on more on military aid and power politics than on justice.

If the greatest thing about a nation is its weaponry, if all it’s got is raw power, then it’s not a great nation at all. It will weaken itself abroad by making enemies of other nations, and it will disgrace itself at home by taking the form of a military dictatorship or police state that makes its own people miserable.

A nation is on its way to greatness, not when its armed forces have all the latest weapons and law enforcement techniques, but when the nation and its people can echo the words of a biblical writer who said, “Some trust in chariots and some in horses, but we trust in the name of the Lord our God” (Psalm 20:7). Some trust in missiles and some in police units, but we trust in the Lord our God. It’s not the power of weapons but the power of God’s righteousness that exalts a nation


Still another thing that comes to mind when we think about what makes a nation great is its economy. A great nation is a prosperous nation. But how can there be prosperity without any righteousness? There are individual people who get rich, not because they are righteous, but because they are manipulators. But the overall economy of a nation depends to a large degree on righteousness, both for economic growth and economic stability. Economic growth depends on people who have the virtues of hard work, honesty, and self-control. Widespread laziness, dishonesty, 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.

And beyond these obvious connections between righteousness and economic wellbeing, there’s the simple fact that ultimately, God is in charge. When too many citizens have too little regard for God or for righteousness, he can bring disaster and cause an economic upheaval and bring a nation to ruin. Then again, he may allow an economy to prosper and yet keep the people from enjoying it. They make lots of money and have all sorts of luxuries, but they’re not happy or satisfied. They’re rich but miserable, trapped by boredom and addiction and depression.

A prosperous economy is worth having only when people’s hearts are at peace. Only when we live in righteousness, under God’s blessing, can we experience and enjoy the prosperity that only God can give. As the Bible puts it,

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).


Another thing we might look for in a great nation is freedom. We value our freedom: freedom to express ourselves, freedom to make our own choices, freedom to choose our own leaders. Doesn’t all this talk about righteousness sound like a threat to freedom? After all, we don’t want a government that shoves righteousness down our throats, that forces the same moral code and the same religious beliefs on everyone. We don’t want inquisitions or ayatollahs–we want freedom! Well, let’s look at freedom and its relationship to righteousness. Does righteousness destroy freedom? No, righteousness is the basis for freedom.

When Scripture says that righteousness exalts a nation, it doesn’t necessarily mean that a nation’s government enforces every detail of righteousness with an iron fist. Certain laws have to be enforced, of course, but righteousness doesn’t come from passing a few laws or making a few court decisions or throwing a few more people in jail. The kind of righteousness that exalts a nation occurs where the people of a nation are righteous not because the government says they have to be but because they themselves want to be. A government can punish certain things, but it can’t produce true righteousness in its citizens. Only God can do that. Only God can give people the kind of character that makes them freely seek to do what is right.

So, then, righteousness doesn’t depend on making laws and limiting freedoms. Righteousness isn’t the enemy of freedom; it’s the foundation for freedom. Freedom is possible only as long as enough people use their freedom rightly. For example, we can allow freedom of speech to neo-Nazis and remain free only as long as most citizens voluntarily reject such bigotry. We can permit freedom to be sexually immoral and continue to have a strong social structure only if most people voluntarily remain committed to marriage. If a majority of people pursue freedom without righteousness, the nation becomes a disgrace and a disaster.

One more point about the relationship between freedom and righteousness: freedom without righteousness isn’t really freedom at all; it’s addiction. 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.

Freedom without righteousness ends in bondage. One of the ways righteousness exalts a nation is by providing the context within which freedom is even possible. Freedom in your personal life and freedom in the life of a nation can grow and flourish only in the soil of righteousness.

True righteousness and true freedom come in knowing God through Jesus Christ and in following his teaching. Jesus says, “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 and to become a slave. As Jesus put it, “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). Your freedom and happiness depend more on a right relationship to Jesus than on any politician or political system.


And that brings us to a final thing that we usually expect to find in a great nation: great leadership. Every great nation has its share of heroic leaders. But as important as government officials might be, they aren’t the key to changing your life or turning the nation around. The Bible says, “It is better to trust in the Lord than to trust in princes” (Psalm 118:9). How does righteousness exalt a nation? Only when great numbers of citizens trust and serve the Lord as their supreme leader. Political leaders can’t help us if we remain the same old nation and follow the same old desires. If you want your own life to become better, and if you want your nation to become great, then don’t look first of all to political leaders. Look to Jesus.

We’ve talked about education and military strength and the economy and freedom and leadership, and we’ve seen each of these things is worthwhile only if it’s rooted in righteousness. “Righteousness exalts a nation, but sin is a disgrace to any people.” The greatest need of any nation is righteousness in more and more citizens, the kind that comes not from legislation or programs but from knowing Christ and following the Scriptures.

What about you? Do you trust Jesus as your only Savior and obey him as your supreme leader? Are you living in righteousness that is lifting you toward heaven and that helps to exalt your nation as well? Or are you living in sin that drags you down and disgraces your nation? However much we might need educational or military or economic strength, however much we might seek freedom or good political leadership, our greatest need in not societal reform but spiritual revival–starting with you and with me.


Lord Most High, you are great, and you reign forever.  You’ve placed us in a land of freedom and opportunity, and we thank you 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 the institutions of our society so that they express justice and compassion; and make this 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.