New Year’s Nightmare

We’ve just come to the end of another year—and, as usual, the pundits are pontificating on the top stories of 1996. The press picks Bill Clinton’s reelection, the crash of TWA Flight 800, and the African uprisings as the major events of 1996. But personally, I tend to view the year a little more philosophically. I believe 1996 will go down in the history books as the year in which virtue died in America. It marked the end of the glorious American vision of goodness, a tradition that demanded and expected righteousness in its leaders. Former President Dwight Eisenhower understood this connection. He was fond of quoting a comment attributed to Tocqueville: “America is good. America is great. But if America ever ceases to be good, she will cease to be great.” It’s a phrase that once captured the spirit of America. We demanded our politicians to be clean and straight, to be noble and ideal, because America was a country of great and high ideals. No more. In 1996, when the question of character was raised in the presidential campaign, it was dismissed out of hand. Character is a private matter, the press told us. The public seemed to agree. Exit polls taken on election day showed that most people believed Bill Clinton could not be trusted, but they didn’t care. They voted for him anyway. This, in a country that has made the story of George Washington refusing to lie about chopping down a cherry tree a cherished part of our folklore. Well, President Clinton wasn’t the only leader accused of corruption. In the closing days of 1996, we read stories of how the Speaker of the House misused private charitable funds for political purposes, and misled the House Ethics Committee in the process. A jury of his peers, Republicans and Democrats, took the unprecedented action of reprimanding and fining Newt Gingrich. Of course, the Speaker didn’t personally profit, and the IRS would not have even prosecuted an ordinary citizen. But Newt Gingrich is not an ordinary citizen. He is a political leader—one who had held himself up as a paragon of virtue. And once again, sadly, character doesn’t seem to matter. Mr. Gingrich was duly reelected Speaker of the House. And so we have a president hobbled by the greatest number of ethics charges of any president in history, and a Speaker of the House found guilty of abusing tax laws. And how do Americans react? With a huge yawn—and that’s the danger. History proves that America can stand corrupt leaders. We’ve proven that we can overcome them. But what we can never overcome is moral indifference—the acceptance of unrighteousness as a way of life. Thirty years of secularization have brought America to this point, and it’s a sad and sorry moment. It is a national attitude that invites God’s judgment. That judgment, in fact, may well be upon us, because the punishment of sin is sin, as Augustine put it. Do you want unrighteous leaders? God asks. Fine—I’ll give them to you. My prayer is that 1997 will be a time of re-commitment for Christians. If we truly exhibit a passion for righteousness—and demand it from those who represent us—we may yet set the way for a nation so clearly morally adrift.


Chuck Colson



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