Our Toughest Assignment

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In the summer of 2009, several months before he died, my father told me he had something important to ask. He was emphatic that I had to be straight with him. “Tell me,” he said in a mixture of order and query, “where has your mother gone and why did she leave?”

It was perhaps the toughest assignment I’d ever been called upon to handle. Mom had passed away more than nine years earlier, a little more than 55 years after she and my dad married. It was then, I suppose, that my father’s decline, which I’d previously refused to fully accept, was clear to me.

My dad was a retired history professor. His English was impeccable, his French acceptable, and his Mandarin frighteningly fluent for a westerner, especially of his generation. I sometimes wonder what I’d have done if I’d had half his intellectual prowess — and then I remember that I probably do.

My generation’s parents composed what we have come to call, thanks to Tom Brokaw, “The Greatest Generation.” The moniker is a generous and loving one. But, as with virtually everything labeled by us boomers, it is ultimately self-referential (and reverential). It is as if to say, “our generation was raised by the best; hence…”

In no way do I mean to diminish what they experienced and accomplished. But I have no doubt that my late mother would have rejected the sobriquet, insisting that her parents’ generation was superior, pointing to its sacrifice during WWI, its grace and courage in surviving a true pandemic that claimed five times the casualties of the one we — having displayed neither grace nor courage — are now exiting, and in ushering her own generation through the Great Depression. From the stories I have heard of them, my grandmothers would have claimed the prize for their parents’ generation. One suspects that sort of judgement would go on and on, back to our Founding Fathers.

America’s history is marked by one generation after the next that exhibited greatness. No generation has been perfect; in fact, each has suffered from an inevitably mortal flaw — humanity. The Founders recognized and accounted for this imperfect condition in designing our republic. Acknowledging that our rights come from God and not from government, they intentionally limited government’s ability to control the governed — a self-evident need sprung from a keen understanding of a certain self-evident truth.

Far from mandating that God be expelled from the town square, our founding is actually explicit in announcing that any hope we have of achieving an enlightened, democratic republic is inextricably linked with one fundamental understanding: with Him, we may flourish; without Him, we will perish. Paradoxically, it is recognizing our imperfection and imperfectability that allows us to right wrongs and to forgive our adversaries. It is no coincidence that the movements for emancipation and civil rights, for example, were driven by grace-fueled believers.

The alternative, a presumption of infallibility or at least the pretention that such a state can be achieved, leads in its most benign form to a static arrogance, e.g., socialism, that bars actual progress. With that system, if you are lucky, you get inertia, a paralysis that overtakes the people one law and one tax at a time. Far worse, that joyless ride readily morphs into a sinister intransigence — torturing reality until it bends to a theory’s demands, i.e., totalitarianism.

Ultimately, a society has the same choice that an individual has: (1) it acknowledges our creator, and demonstrates a submission to His eternal and unchanging nature through the way it behaves, recognizing eternal verities and values in the laws it enacts; or (2) it doesn’t.

Our Founders chose Option 1. None of this is to say that nonbelievers cannot comprehend or appreciate the genius of the nation’s founding. I know self-proclaimed atheists and agnostics who deeply understand, as President Washington did, the indisputable intersection of freedom and biblical teachings.


“Whatever may be conceded to the influence of refined education on minds of peculiar structure, reason and experience both forbid us to expect, that national morality can prevail in exclusion of religious principle.” — Washington’s Farewell Address, September 17, 1796

I do mean to suggest, however, that if, as a people, we reject Option 1, we are doomed. (Yes, the word conjures thoughts of outdated melodramas, but I went easy on you — I could have just as easily, and perhaps as accurately, said damned.)

So what of Option 2? It is fully on display in China, should you need an example. But, regrettably, we have examples that are much closer to home, as well.

Option 2 is hideously displayed in the sort of brutish intolerance that forces girls to surrender dreams of athletic success in order to permit otherwise unremarkable boys to steal their trophies; it’s evident in the hard bigotry that expects blacks and Latinos to fail when left to their own devices, presuming that they will always be the white liberal’s burden; it is realized in the ugly condemnation of  innocent children as monsters for no other reason than because they are white. (It’s all-too-telling that leftists routinely paint white folk as “privileged” no matter their actual socioeconomic status.) And, worst of all, it manifests in the corpses of unborn infants too numerous to tally.

How far will we allow our society, our government to stray from the principles that gave it birth? The Internal Revenue Service recently denied tax exempt status to a religious-based organization because biblical teachings are typically affiliated with the Republican Party and its candidates. In a way, its action delights me because it draws such an express conclusion  (although that conclusion is not always deserved). It provides the skeletal structure for the contention that “the choice is clear” in next year’s political campaigns. Now, it’s time for Republicans to put some meat on the bones.

I have developed a habit of late of encouraging action. Largely, I have limited myself to the role of cheerleader. “Go Team!” When asked for specific assignments (“So, Paul, what do you suggest we do about it?”), I simply advocate for creative, original action borne of critical thinking. In other words, I generalize. For mine is not to instruct; but, on this occasion, I will give an assignment. For some it will be a tough one.

If you believe in God, get yourself and your families to church or synagogue, pray for this country. If you don’t believe in God, thoughtfully reconsider. If you still don’t believe, get yourself to a place of worship anyway. Consider it “networking” if you must. If nothing else, you will be a thorn in the side of the left. Bask in the delicious irony of collectivists losing their minds over people gathering corporately. We must turn our collective face towards Him.

I urge this in order to avoid my most horrifying nightmare, one in which I find myself saying to my son, in a mixture of order and query, “Tell it to me straight. Where has my country gone and why did it happen?”

My most solemn prayer is that I won’t be asking him in Mandarin.

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