It was the night before I was to deliver the keynote address at the National Day of Prayer meeting in the capital. Parading through my mind was the litany so often used before this bipartisan political gathering: Recite 2 Chronicles 7:14 and pray for national renewal.
Suddenly, I felt led to give an entirely different message. The theme chosen for that day was honoring God. But does our nation honor God? Clearly not. I realized that no matter how fervently we pray, the Lord will not grant renewal to a nation that does not honor Him. First we must repent, fall on our knees, and confess our nation's failure to acknowledge God.
Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn summed up the evils of the twentieth century in a pithy Russian proverb: "Men have forgotten God." Surely that is true of Americans. Just before the Day of Prayer, political pundits were scandalized because a Supreme Court Justice — Atonin Scalia — admitted he believed in Christ's resurrection. He was pilloried by columnists and lampooned by cartoonists, who found it beyond credence that anyone would take the Bible seriously in public life. Columnist Richard Cohen even wondered whether Scalia's faith made him unfit for the Courts.
This climate of hostility has mushroomed suddenly. Only forty-four years ago, another Supreme Court justice penned these words: "We are a religious people, whose institutions presuppose a Supreme Being." That was the great liberal William O. Douglas, writing in 1952. He urged the state to encourage religion and to "accommodate the public service" to the needs of religious believers. Within the lifetime of many who are reading this, we have gone from justices who encourage religion to justices who are excoriated for their religion.
Admittedly, we do not yet face outright persecution. In places such as Iran, Sudan, and China, the cost of faith may be liberty, property, and even life. Yet even in the U.S., we're witnessing the gradual but certain erosion of religious freedom. For example, in the District of Columbia, a judge ruled that an upcoming referendum may not include a vote on whether to allow voluntary, student-initiated prayer in public schools. Voters are being denied a voice on a question of religious freedom. A student in Utah was arrested for leading a commencement audience in singing a hymn in defiance of a court order. In Pittsburgh, all holidays from Thanksgiving through Christmas and New Year's have been blended into a gargantuan commercial celebration called "Sparkle Season."
Truly, America has forgotten God. And it is reaping the consequences. I spoke before a board of newspaper editors recently, where one of them — striking a pose of enlightened urbanity — boasted that he had led a campaign in his city to remove the Ten Commandments from classroom walls. Yet not fifteen minutes later, the same editor was bemoaning the crime infecting our nation's schools — rampant violence and stealing. "Hmm," I said, "maybe you should put a sign on the wall: 'You shall not steal.'" The man looked embarrassed as he slowly made the connection.
That conversation vividly illustrates what lawyer Phillip Johnson calls the modernist impasse: The modern mind-set wants to set individuals free from moral restraints, but at the same time wants to live in a society bound by restraints that prevent violence and injustice. Clearly, the two are incompatible. As Augustine wrote, the consequences of sin are sin. If we reject biblical morality as individuals, there's no preventing social chaos and crime.
The first step in cultural renewal is repentance of our own failure to uphold God's law — in our personal lives, our churches, and our public life. It's easy to treat prayer as a celestial 911 call, asking God to sweep down and wipe out injustice. But national renewal begins with personal repentance. Our prayer should be "God, change me first."
Then we must make the case for the positive social role religion plays. We must learn how to show people — as I tried to show that newspaper editor — that the secular world view gives no basis for social order. Unless we make that case persuasively, religious freedoms will continue to erode. We must argue that the only way to bridge the modernist impasse is to bow before divine law.
This is not an easy message, as I discovered from the somber silence that met my remarks on the National Day of Prayer. But anything less is a mere placebo, incapable of healing a nation that has forgotten God.
Vote: Not Sufficient — But Necessary!
According to the Ray C. Bliss Institute of Applied Politics, University of Akron, only 55 percent of eligible voters actually voted in the 1992 general election. Among evangelicals, slightly more than half — 51 percent — cast votes. In 1996, only 49 percent of eligible voters in the general population cast votes, the lowest turnout since 1925. While hard statistics for voter sub-group turnout are not yet available for 1996, early indications suggest a lower evangelical turnout than in 1992.
Confronting our nation's cultural woes requires far more than our vote, but it certainly requires no less than our vote!
From Jubilee, Summer 1996. Copyright 1996. Reprinted with permission of Prison Fellowship, PO Box 17500, Washington, DC 20041.