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The Turning Tide

Synopsis: A majority of Americans believe in God, a reflection of this nation's founding on religious principles. The genius of the American political system is that it allows Americans to experience the true freedom that comes not from political systems but from God. We should hold fast to faith exercised both in public and private life.

It is an honor to have been invited here to deliver this Alf Landon Lecture. Governor Landon was one of those rare men in politics or any other profession -- a man who stood with good humor and great grace for what he believed in, even when it was unpopular. So it is truly an honor to be here at Kansas State University.

I understand you've been looking forward to an address by a Republican broadcaster who is a major force in American politics, and whose controversial views are heard by millions of people each week. But Rush Limbaugh couldn't be here, so I agreed to sit in for him.

As you heard, I ran for President in 1988 -- a remarkable experience. I have always believed that ours is the greatest and most decent country on earth. But traveling the nation, talking with, in the end, millions of Americans put me more than ever in awe of the majesty and goodness of this land of freedom; this home of hope; this city on a hill; this light unto the nations; this God-given miracle we call America. It was deeply humbling.

Today, as in 1988, I believe that the issue of the role of faith in politics deserves to be taken seriously and that is what I am here to speak about today.

And let me start with this simple fact. As it is in no other nation on earth, faith is woven into the fabric of American life. In fact, faith is the heartbeat that pumps life into the democratic ideal.

The Gallup organization has compared us to France, Britain, Italy, Russia, Germany, Japan and other nations and found that more Americans believe in God and act on that belief in their daily lives than people anywhere else.

The Gallup organization has found that an astonishing 140 million Americans pray to God every single day. Yes, according to Gallup, 57 percent of us pray daily.

About 130 million of us go to church or synagogue regularly -- which means that on a weekly basis, America's houses of God are four times more popular than the most popular television program.

I am an Evangelical Christian, which means I believe God is a presence in my daily life. So do 110 million Americans, who believe that God has spoken directly to them.

Governor Alf Landon, in whose honor this lecture is given every year, said in 1936, and I quote: "We want more than a material recovery in this country. We want a moral and spiritual recovery as well." The governor's wise words have been heeded all across America. As the numbers I've just cited prove, a large majority of Americans of all races, creeds and political affiliations unapologetically and unambiguously celebrate the joy and richness of lives filled with the wisdom of God's word.

Perhaps no nation can claim a special place in God's heart. But America is a better nation because He has a special place in ours. It has been like that from our nation's earliest days.

In 1835 a French social observer, Alexis de Tocqueville, visited the United States and wrote the classic Democracy in America. He also noted that America is central to the success of the democratic experiment. As he put it: "Despotism may be able to do without faith, but democracy cannot." And he added, "Religion is...needed...in democratic republics most of all."

Tocqueville recognized that when men govern together and by consent, they need to see beyond themselves. Faith, he said, provides that vision. Again, in his words: "(Faith) imposes on each man some obligation to mankind, to be performed in common with the rest of mankind, and so draws him away, from time to time, from thinking about himself."

For the freedom we enjoy in this country is not simply the result of a well-ordered political system. The genius of the American political system is that it allows Americans to experience the true freedom that comes not from political systems but from God. This concept did not originate with me. It burned in the hearts and fired the imaginations of America's founders.

T homas Jefferson wrote in 1777 in the initial discussions of what would become the First Amendment to the United States Constitution affirming the freedom of religion, in his words: "Almighty God hath created the mind free, and manifested His supreme will that free it shall remain by making it altogether insusceptible to restraint."

What Tocqueville, Jefferson and so many others throughout the centuries have understood is that limited government such as ours can only work if there is a code of behavior such as only our Judeo-Christian tradition, our faith in God and God's word can provide.

A code of behavior: love your neighbor as yourself; tell the truth; work hard; be thrifty; be temperate; be self-sufficient; love and support your family; nurture and teach your children; care for those in need.

In the world of Jefferson and Tocqueville, these values were not abstractions but daily realities. If you had gone to Philadelphia in that time, you would have found charities feeding the poor -- hospitals caring for the sick, schools educating children -- all without government support. The Quakers of the city didn't wait for a government program but moved by their faith and did all of this on their own. As did Catholics in Maryland, the Congregationalists in New England, and all the people of many different denominations in New York.

Thoughtful Americans have always understood the role of faith in democracy. But this message of the link of faith and democracy is not an exclusively American message. It is a message for all of humanity.

The "moral and spiritual recovery" Governor Landon talked about is now taking glorious root in the fertile soil of the post-communist world as well, where the mind proved insusceptible to restraint despite 70 years of suppression. The new barbarism that seized much of the world in this century has been overcome. The evils of communism and fascism, which gave rise to the unimaginable horrors of the Holocaust and the gulags, have gone the way of all sullied flesh --melted in the heat of the righteous fire.

Communism didn't fall, it was pushed. You might ask, who did the pushing? To those of us with faith we believe in the words of the Gospel ballad, "It must have been the hand of the Lord."

And just as Jefferson and Tocqueville observed in America, in the once-communist world leaders are discovering that freedom needs faith as its preamble. The people in the Eastern bloc today equate religion with freedom and opportunity. People who are free to worship in the religion of their choice are free to prosper in the endeavors of their choice.

But as the nations of Eastern Europe have found, it is difficult to build new institutions in place of ones that have crumbled. Nations need what political philosopher Michael Novak calls "mediating institutions" -- meaning those private institutions that stand between the individual and the state and protect the individual from excessive state power.

Aside from the family, the most important such institutions have always been the churches, by which I mean anything from a one-room tabernacle to an entire denomination. The newly freed nations of Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union need religion because without it their efforts to liberate their nations will fail.

Let me tell you a story about the nation of Romania. A couple of years ago, The Christian Broadcasting Network began supplying two television series about the Bible to Romanian television. The response was so astonishing that the president's chief of staff said to my associate, Michael Little, and I quote: "I am an atheist. I do not believe in God. I do not believe in Jesus Christ. But we know that in order to build a just society we must build it on the principles of the Bible. We want your Bible. We want your Bible stories."

Consider the meaning and value of these words. Even if you are not among the Americans for whom religion is so vitally important, you can see the power of religion as a force for social good. It has been so throughout American history. It was the ministers of New England who taught the nation to revile slavery as an affront to human nature. The idea of universal education in this country was born in its churches -- our first colleges were divinity schools. Our first grade schools and high schools were established by community churches. Helping organizations like the Red Cross were begun in missionary zeal. And of course it was in the African American churches that the American civil-rights movement found its purest and noblest expression.

So this is the message of Tocqueville and Jefferson. This is the message that we have heard from Alf Landon and the newly freed peoples of the old Soviet bloc -- that faith in God is not, as some believe, a threat to democracy. Faith in God is essential to democracy.

I ask those of you who consider yourselves completely secular to acknowledge the affirmative role of religion just as those of us who are religious acknowledge that religion can be twisted to ungodly ends -- as when the Ayatollah Khomeini sent twelve year-old boys into battle for the supposed glory of God, or when the apostles of apartheid in South Africa tried to make the noxious claim that the suppression of an entire people was God's will; or more recently when two deluded people claimed that they were acting in God's name when they shot two abortionists, one of them in Wichita.

I want to make this clear: As much as I support the sanctity of innocent human life, as much as I believe that peacefully resisting injustice is a noble act, I abhor these demented acts of violence. I absolutely agree with the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops when they said, "The violence of killing in pro-life makes a mockery of the pro-life cause. "

If we can acknowledge these mutual truths -- from the secular point of view, that religion is a force for good; from the religious point of view, that religion can be misused -- we can move forward from the mistrust that divides us toward common ground and a common purpose.

It is ironic that there are some in this nation -- a nation built on belief in God --who think that belief in God is the nation's undoing. Some have even taken the words "separation of church and state" to mean that the state needs to be protected from religion. That was not the way our nation's founders saw it or how most Americans see it today. Most of us advocate the separation of church and state to protect the church from the state to guarantee the free practice of religion against the temporal depredations of bureaucrats and power-hungry tyrants.

Remember that when Jefferson and Tocqueville were writing, we had just declared our independence from a nation with a state religion -- a nation whose king was the leader of the church and whose bishops and archbishops were actually appointed by the politicians and bureaucrats of England's Parliament.

Imagine that. Imagine Ted Kennedy and the Keating Five with the power to appoint the bishop of Kansas City. It was precisely to avoid such a situation that the founders sought to separate church and state not to banish faith and the faithful from the political life of the nation. They sought to allow the free practice of religion -- whatever religion.

By the way, this is why I, along with the vast majority of the American people, am for limited government. Big government always seems to pit bureaucrats against Bibles. And I don't have to tell you which one the American people have more faith in.

You can see the wisdom of the founding fathers in attempting to set boundaries for the protection of religion from the heavy hand of the state, because it still goes on.

Consider just a few examples:

The federal courts have forbidden a fifth-grade teacher in Denver from displaying his own Bible on his desk at school even though books dealing with other religious subjects stay on nearby shelves.

In Washington, D.C. the Department of the Interior has adopted regulations that prohibit free speech activities, including evangelism, on sections of Constitution Avenue.

And it doesn't stop with federal action. At Moorehead State University in Minnesota, officials some time ago told co-ed students that they could not include a fish in a mural on a dormitory wall because it was a religious symbol.

In Michigan, a five-year-old girl in kindergarten tried to thank her Lord before her Friday snack. Her teacher told her to stop because prayer is not allowed in school.

I wish I could say these were isolated aberrations. But the American Center for Law and Justice, an organization that I founded, works with people whose free exercise of their faith has been challenged. These are not isolated cases at all.

Where the bureaucrats go, the media is never far behind. I know you share my shock at the suggestion of columnist Molly Ivins that the tax-exempt status of some American churches be revoked if they speak out on controversial issues. Some are just not happy unless everything is under the dominion of the public sector. Apparently they haven't recovered from the fact that Moses came down from Sinai with the Ten Commandments, not a ten-point government program.

As Ted Koppel observed in his commencement address at Duke University some years ago, it was the Ten Commandments, not the Ten Suggestions.

This effort to demean religion and religious practices has gained a foothold in the political culture -- what Yale professor Stephen L. Carter calls in his influential new book The Culture of Disbelief. There's a term for this kind of assault. It's called McCarthyism, and it's just as foul a tactic when practiced against Christians as it was against purported communists.

And yet I find the virulence of these assaults a reason to celebrate, not a reason to fear. Our opponents have become so fierce because they realize that at the end of the 20th century, the tide has turned. The people of the world have learned the painful lessons taught by the century's first 90 years. In the 20th century, we were witness to the unprecedented explosion of state power around the globe. The rise of communism and fascism represented the most thorough and terrifying effort to control the hearts and minds and souls of humankind through the agency of state power -- in George Orwell's unforgettable image, a boot smashing into the human face forever. These inhumane systems tried to destroy everything that stood between them and the human face -- free speech, free thought, free press and, most important, free practice of religion.

But the human spirit, infused by God, cannot be stilled. Who can forget the sight of Natan Sharansky imprisoned and tortured for a dozen years in the former Soviet Union simply because he wanted to live as a Jew in the state of Israel. As he left the care of his captors at the Moscow airport and headed toward a plane that would carry him to freedom, the KGB agent told him to walk straight to the plane. And in response Sharansky zigzagged his way across the tarmac as his final message to the prison state he was leaving. And that message was: I am a child of God and I am free.

And a scant three years later, the Berlin Wall came down and communism's dreaded assault on the freedom granted mankind by God breathed its last.

Yes, the tide has turned. Outside the communist world, people have come to understand that they cannot look to the state for answers to solve the problems of humanity. In Sweden, voters rejected 50 years of socialism. Since 1980, in Central and South America, democratic elections and not military juntas have become the norm.

It's all part of a process the writer Tom Wolfe has called the "great relearning." And it's one of the ironies of our time that just as the world outside the United States is relearning the lessons of freedom and faith, our leaders in Washington are looking back with nostalgia to the failed ideas of the past. They seek the re-establishment of the Great Society, the disastrous policies of the mid-60s that expanded the federal government, damaged the poor, and set our government on the reckless course of deficit spending that now threatens the nation's economic well-being.

Fortunately, Washington, D.C. is not the heartland of America, and the American people have led the way in the "great relearning." The American people do not see Washington as the solution, but as the problem.

In their effort to increase the size and scope of government, the residents of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue are not simply spending too much money. They want to increase American dependence on government, which is ruinous both for the initiative and soul of the nation.

Governor Alf Landon foresaw this problem in 1936, when, speaking in New York City, he said: "We have been allowing material things to obscure the great religious and spiritual values. But life is more than bread. Character is the supreme thing. We have been weakening those very qualities upon which character is built."

And he added, "It would be tragedy if in our attempt to win prosperity we should lose our own souls. It would be an overwhelming disaster if we should forget that it is righteousness that exalteth a nation."

Governor Landon spoke those visionary words in the depths of the Great Depression. But their truth echoes almost 60 years later.

Here we sit, in 1993, surrounded by luxuries untold, by technology magical in its power, by bounties unimaginable to our great-grandparents. And yet can we truly say we are better off than they were? Consider the settlers of olden times, the great-grandparents of the students at this university. Those brave pioneers first came to Kansas, conquered the elements and tamed the land. And they did so without the help of a "Department of Covered Wagons" in Washington.

Let us follow their example. Let us use our technological bounty not to fulfill our narrow pleasures, but to elevate humankind. Let us spread the evangel of freedom until we live in a time when the word "dictator" has receded into the mists of a hazy past. Let us remember each day to give thanks that we are alive in this day, and not rest until this day is a better one than it was when we awakened at first light.

Let us be the new pioneers -- those of us who believe in self-reliance, individual initiative, have faith in God and in an America where the unapologetic presence of a higher moral authority can, and will, lead us to horizons as yet undreamed.

Thank you, and may God bless you.

I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.
—Philippians 4:13

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