In July 1864, some 14,000 Confederate troops stood just six miles from—and within sight of—the Capitol Dome. For President Lincoln, it was a rude shock. After all, this was a year after the Union victory at the Battle of Gettysburg. The Confederacy seemed near defeat.
In the nick of time, 17,000 Union troops dispatched by Ulysses S. Grant arrived and pushed the Confederates back. Washington was saved. Today, as Joe Biden is sworn in as 46th President of the United States, 20,000 National Guardsmen are in place to defend that same Capitol.
It’s impossible to understand how we’ve reached this point, unless we look beyond the last few weeks, even beyond the election, to pre-existing conditions, such as the decades-long thinning of civil society.
The most recent lawlessness at the Capitol reflects an escalating lawlessness that spans political parties, religious affiliations, age brackets, and social classes. Will a militarized America be the new normal? Will the armed troops protecting the Citadel of Democracy today be patrolling the streets of rioting cities tomorrow? Will the blatant failures of our institutions and our leaders continue to fester to an explosive level of distrust?
Chuck Colson often said that unless people are governed by the conscience, they will be governed by the constable. When people are unable to govern themselves, they face a choice between order and chaos. Most often, the people ultimately choose order, which inevitably means the loss of freedoms.
The freedom to assemble peacefully is impossible to maintain when assemblies frequently turn into riots, looting, or sedition. The freedom of speech seems particularly vulnerable today, when Big Tech wields all the power and decides, like Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram already have, to crack down on political speech they deem offensive or dangerous. Last week, Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez spoke openly about forming a committee to “rein in our media environment,” something that should alarm anyone who has ever read any dystopian novel, ever. Our Second Amendment freedoms are most vulnerable when used as cover by mass shooters or insurrectionists.
Perhaps the most consistent refrain from America’s Founders is that our national experiment would prove unsustainable without a virtuous citizenry. Our Constitution simply cannot govern those who refuse to govern themselves. John Adams, our second President, said it most clearly: “Our Constitution was made only for a moral and religious people. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other.”
Yet, Americans are becoming increasingly immoral and irreligious, our shocking lack of conscience is on display in rising numbers of both “deaths from despair” (addictions, self-harm and suicide) and “acts of desperation” (violent acts, riots, self-mutilation in pursuit of identity or sexual pleasure). We pump poisonous ideas into our hearts and minds and call it entertainment. We pump lies into our children and call it education.
In other words, America is in a dark, deeply divided place, a place Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn accurately described in his 1978 speech at Harvard. We have, he said, very “little defense against the abyss of human decadence…such as the misuse of liberty for moral violence against young people, such as motion pictures full of pornography, crime, and horror.” Even strict laws, said Solzhenitsyn (and, I might add, 20,000 National Guard troops), are powerless to defend a people against such moral corrosion.
The situation is dire, but not without hope. As Chuck Colson often said, despair is a sin. Christ is risen from the dead. God, in His gracious goodness, has revealed to us what is true and what is good. He has given us His Word and, through prayer, He has made Himself available to us.
Today, the Colson Center is launching a time of prayer, which will continue every week until Easter. Each week, often led by our ministry colleagues, we’ll pray according to the profound instruction God has given us in the book of Proverbs. We launch this today, and you can learn all about it at breakpoint.org/proverbs.
The devolution of our collective conscience may continue. The replacement of constitutional rights with constables might be inevitable. May it never be! But even if so, may God’s people not be reduced to outrage or cowardice. May we be the reservoir of strength and renewal our nation so desperately needs.
Thomas A. Lewis | Smithsonian Magazine | July 1988
Colson Center | 2021
John Stonestreet | Breakpoint | January 7, 2021
John Stonestreet | Breakpoint | January 15, 2021
Robby Soave | reason | January 14, 2021
John Stonestreet | Breakpoint | March 12, 2018
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