My favorite speech in American history was delivered by President Calvin Coolidge, on October 20th, 1925, to the Council of Congregational Churches in Washington D.C. In this speech, President Coolidge explains what it is a government can do and those feats for which a government is impotent.
The utmost ingenuity on the part of the police powers will be substantially all wasted in an effort to enforce the law, if there does not exist a strong and vigorous determination on the part of the people to observe the law. Such a determination can not be produced by the Government.
Many citizens in this country would read this speech as if reading an ancient tome unearthed in the excavation of an Egyptian pyramid. It is a reminder that the government was never intended to be an instrument for the establishment of virtue in the people.
If the people are the government it can not rise above them; it can not furnish them with something they do not have; it will be what they are.
A lesson for our foreign policy in the Middle East?
Is it any surprise that “the people” are baffled by their own demands of virtue in government when that same virtue no longer exists amongst the public? Truly, I do not believe that our government possesses the power to fix our social ailments. I do not believe that the government is capable of tackling poverty or crime. I do not believe that the government is capable of ending drug abuse or prostitution. The government can create infrastructure for the management of social or moral crises and it can use force to remove “problems” from the general public. That is all.
While I regard the clergy as the greatest power for religious teaching that we have, I do not refer to them alone. I am conscious that the example of devoted men and women, the result of the inevitable social relations, and above all the influence of piety in the home, are all forces of enormous significance.
Last week, one of my pastors explained that the Christian life does not begin and end with a pastor’s instruction, but in every moment of every day in the life of the individual that lives it.
In Caroline County, I have had the opportunity to begin meeting with a group of community leaders, many of them ministers, looking to themselves to aid in the fight against violence, systemic poverty, and social inequality. Whether they are conscious of it or not (and many of them are not), they recognize that there are problems that their governments cannot solve.
Fingers may be pointed. Blame may be laid. But impatience with government’s inability to address problems in our communities has forced our hand to address these problems ourselves. This is a beautiful thing.
While certain formalities of the past may have lost the hold they once had, I do not see any diminution in the steadfastness of the religious convictions of the people. If these were broken down, society might go on for a time under its own momentum, but it would be had for destruction. We do not possess any other enlightening force.
President Coolidge only saw the beginning of what was to come. President Coolidge argues for the separation of Church and State; Not for the security of the State, but for the liberty of the Church. Yet, he recognizes, even as President, his government’s inability to solve social problems. He reminds the Church of its responsibilities and mission. He reminds the church that it was they who established the foundations for education in America. He reminds the Church, that it was they who set forth the principles under which the Republic would eventually be governed. He reminds the Church, that it is they who, through the persuasiveness of faith, can establish a society respectful of the rule of law and our God-given inalienable rights.
I have tried to indicate what I think the country needs in the way of help under present conditions. It needs more religion. If there are any general failures in the enforcement of the law, it is because there have first been general failures in the disposition to observe the law. I can conceive of no adequate remedy for the evils which beset society except through the influences of religion. There is no form of education which will not fail, there is no form of government which will not fail, there is no form of reward which will not fail. Redemption must come through sacrifice, and sacrifice is the essence of religion.
The sacrifice of which he speaks is not self-sacrifice, but rather an investment. The New Testament is clear in regard to the Church’s responsibility for the poor and yet we have shared this responsibility with the State. The truth is, most of the problems we experience within the borders of our nation would be better addressed by our churches, temples, and mosques than by any of our governments. Our hubris, best seen in the idea that we can manufacture virtue through force, rather than through persuasion, has caused untold tragedies in the lives of our people.
It is always easy to criticize the Government for failure to reform all morals, to prevent all crime, and generally to abolish all evil. I have great faith in the local and national governments of the United States, but much of this field is beyond their reach. They were not established to discharge this duty; they are utterly unable to accomplish it.
Truer words were never spoken. I would encourage us all, Republicans and Democrats, to take this speech to heart.