May 22, 2009
"Based upon our observations of American soldiers and their officers captured in this war, the following facts are evidenced,” a foreign intelligence officer wrote. "There is little knowledge or understanding, even among United States university graduates, of American political history and philosophy ... of safeguards to freedom; and of how these things supposedly operate within their own system."
Believe it or not those words weren't written by an Al Qaeda operative. They were written during the Korean War (1950-1953) by the chief intelligence officer of the Chinese People's Volunteer Army in North Korea. In a 1957 response to these remarks, Russell Kirk wrote, "Many Americans are badly prepared for their task of defending their own convictions ... against the grim threat of armed ideology.... And in our age, good-natured ignorance is a luxury none of us can afford."
As we pause this Memorial Day to honor those who died to preserve our freedom, it's a good time to take stock of the threats to our nation. I believe that the greatest threat is internal decay that results from a lack of knowledge of those things that make America great.
The Chinese officer's gloating inspired Kirk to write a primer on American political, economic and civil principles titled "The American Cause." Kirk defined the American cause as "the defense of the principles of a true civilization. This defense is conducted by renewing people's consciousness of true moral and political and economic principle ..." He continued, "The American cause is not to stamp out of existence all rivals, but simply to keep alive the principles and institutions which have made the American nation great."
America's modern enemies might have rejoiced in data released last fall by the Intercollegiate Studies Institute demonstrating that 71 percent of Americans in its survey failed a basic civic literacy test with an average score of 49 percent. Incredibly, the average elected official in the sample scored just 44 percent.
Last Saturday, I heard a stirring commencement address by Judge Alice Batchelder of the U.S. Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals advocating the form of education that Kirk supported—education that will turn back the wave of national civic ignorance and strengthen our country. Following that address, an attorney and I discussed the deplorable treatment of the U.S. Constitution by the executive and congressional branches of the federal government that led to the approval of a 2009 budget deficit of $1.84 trillion. "Grotesque," lamented the attorney. We talked about how many of the world's countries have had multiple constitutions while America has had just one. We concluded that America operates from a new unwritten or "parallel constitution" that allows the government to spend whatever amount it desires without restraint by constitutional, moral or economic principle. This new constitution, birthed by civic illiteracy, is fostering the decay of a great nation—$60 trillion in deficits and unfunded liabilities, a failing educational system, breathtaking federal government interference in business, an out of control Federal Reserve that is putting the American dollar and the world's economic system at great risk, and social programs that promote family breakdown and dependence on government. And we have governments in Washington, D.C. and in many of our state capitals that want even more.
Kirk's book was written as an intellectual bulwark against the foreign threat of Soviet communism. He was concerned that we could not defend ourselves from foreign enemies unless we understood what we were defending. "Our danger at home is that a great part of the American people may forget that enduring principles exist," he said, foreshadowing today's striking civic illiteracy. "Our danger abroad is that the false principles of revolutionary fanaticism may gain such an influence as to wound us terribly."
I wonder where Kirk would think the greatest immediate threat to America lies today. Is it Al Qaeda or is it a domestic menace in the form of elected officials and bureaucrats whose actions demonstrate they know or care very little about the American cause? I think it is the latter. A country that has lost touch with its core principles is threatened more by Constitutional decay than by foreign radicals flying airplanes into skyscrapers. And, unfortunately, the domestic threat of civic illiteracy makes foreign threats more potent.
There is hope, of course. But it will require work. The task that Kirk assigns us is "to keep alive the principles and institutions which have made the American nation great." Principles like religious, political and economic liberty. And institutions like limited constitutional government and strong churches and families. The educational institutions that give me the most hope today are the private Christian schools, classical Christian schools, the home schooling movement, and private colleges that have a hefty Western civilization curriculum viewed through the lens of Scripture. There is hope in America because a vigorous remnant of institutions is working to preserve our core principles. We should enlist in their work.
As we prepare to honor those who made the ultimate sacrifice for our country this Memorial Day weekend, let us fulfill our duty to the American cause. Kirk says, "We do not need to invent some new theory of human nature and politics; but we do need, urgently, to recall to our minds the sound convictions that have sustained our civilization and our nation. Our enemies, no matter what resources they may have, cannot defeat us if we are strong in our own principles."
Lee Wishing is administrative director of The Center for Vision & Values at Grove City College.