The Two Most Critical Words Missing From American Vocabulary Today

By Dr. Christian Overman
Director of Worldview Matters

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My wife, Kathy, and I got out of town to do some camping and fishing with our son Rodney and his friend, David. After driving two hours out of Seattle into the pristine Cascade Mountains, we pitched our tents in a campground at Fish Lake. Needing some wood for our campfire, I noticed the campground was selling bundles for $5, but I recalled seeing a sign just off the highway as we turned toward the lake, advertising firewood for 20% less. Passing this location on our way back from a side-trip, we stopped to purchase firewood there.

As we pulled into the orderly establishment, we noticed  a lot of wood carvings for sale, all out in the open, with no one around. Then I saw a large pile of firewood, stacked in neat bundles, and drove toward it. Here we found a carved bear with a jar atop its head. The jar had “Firewood $4.00,” written on it, and a sign at the bear’s feet read: “Pay the Bear.” No one was present to receive our payment.

As I helped myself to a bundle of firewood, and “paid the bear,” I discovered the jar was full of money. Hard cash. Currency. Full! I paid for my purchase with a sense of wonderment, and a heart of thanks for such God-honoring visionaries as John Winthrop, who brought something with them across the Atlantic more valuable than gold: a basis for the kind of trust, moral integrity, and self-government that allows such scenes to still occur in rural America.

At the same time, I couldn’t help but think of a similar experience Christian scholar Vishal Mangalwadi had while visiting the Netherlands. He writes about it in the opening chapter of his book, Truth and Transformation. Mangalwadi tells of his first trip to the Netherlands from his native India, where his host said, “Come, let’s go get some milk.” They walked to a nearby dairy farm and entered the milk room, where no one was present. Mangalwadi’s host filled his jug with milk, then took down a bowl full of cash from a windowsill, put twenty guilders into the bowl, took some change, put the bowl back, and started walking away.

“I was stunned,” Mangalwadi wrote. “Man,” he declared to his host, “if you were an Indian, you would take the milk and the money.”

Then Mangalwadi poses two important questions: “Where did this morality come from? Why isn’t my society equally trustworthy?”

Mangalwadi later relates a much different experience in Amsterdam. There he wanted to buy a bus day-pass from a machine. The instructions were in Dutch. Two young women visiting from America were nearby, and Mangalwadi asked how to get tickets. The women said they had been riding around Amsterdam for a week, and no one checked for tickets. “Why do you want to get tickets?” they asked.

“Their shamelessness shocked me more than their immorality,” relates Mangalwadi. “They represented the new generation, liberated from ‘arbitrary’ and ‘oppressive’ religious ideas of right and wrong. University education had freed them from commandments such as ‘You shall not steal.’”

He goes on: “‘It is wonderful,’ I said to them, ‘that there are enough commuters who pay so that the system can carry some who don’t. Once your schools succeed in producing enough clever commuters, your country will catch up with mine [India]. You will have to have ticket inspectors on every bus and have super-inspectors to spy on the inspectors. Everyone will then have to pay more. But corruption won’t remain confined to the consumers; it is a cancer that will infect politicians, bureaucrats, managers, operators, and the maintenance staff… Soon your public transport will resemble ours: frequent breakdowns will slow down not only the transport system but also your roads, efficiency, and economy.’”

Mangalwadi says morality is the “floundering secret” of the West’s success. Our economic system rests upon trust that people will pay, and not misappropriate funds, bribe, or extort. Without this trust, economic and political systems become cumbersome, expensive, and fatally flawed.

Mangalwadi’s fundamental question is a timely one for every American: From where did American morality come? Where did the kind of trust come from that allowed my wife and I to “pay the bear,” with no one in sight? The forgotten fact is, it was the fruit of a Christian consensus which assumed that a living, omnipotent Judge sat above all, knew all, and held all people equally accountable to His benevolent Code of Conduct. Living in accordance with that Higher Law was right, and flouting it was wrong. In fact, at one time, the Judge and His Code provided meaning itself for the two most critical words missing from American vocabulary today: right and wrong.

As the Judge and His Word are increasingly non-factors of morality in this country, we can expect to see more citizens like the two young Americans Mangalwadi encountered in the Netherlands.

In 1852, Robert C. Winthrop, a descendent of John Winthrop, and 22nd Speaker of the United States House of Representatives declared: “Men, in a word, must necessarily be controlled either by a power within them, or by a power without them; either by the Word of God, or by the strong arm of man, either by the Bible, or by the bayonet.”

In our former days, the concept of “self-government under God” defined liberty among leaders such as John Winthrop and Robert Winthrop. But our current notion of “liberty” idolizes the self-government part, while the under God part is under the bus.

The greatest deterrent to human liberty is independence itself. Independence from God, that is. As we move further away from individual recognition of Higher Law, and personal accountability to the Higher Judge, the less liberty we all have. That’s because the more citizens there are who lack internal control under God, the more calls there will be for external controls—under man. And this is not a pleasant prospect. For who will govern our controllers? What will guide their minds and hearts? The Bible?

As external controls increase in number, no amount of legislation will solve the root problem. That’s because the real problem is internal. Yes, we do need God-honoring legislation. But genuine liberty within the halls of power, in the public square, the marketplace, and the home, must be voluntarily carried into these places by individual players who are controlled by a power within them. We need politicians, plumbers, and parents today who willingly (and gladly) carry their respect for God and His authority within them wherever they go. This is the kind of liberty John and Robert Winthrop had in mind.

Both Presidents John F. Kennedy and Ronald Reagan invoked John Winthrop in political speeches, when they quoted Winthrop’s famous line: “…We shall be as a city upon a hill—the eyes of all people are upon us.” But neither Kennedy nor Reagan told the American people what Winthrop said next in that very same message: “So that if we shall deal falsely with our God in this work we have undertaken, and so cause Him to withdraw His present help from us, we shall be made a story and a by-word through the world. We shall open the mouths of enemies to speak evil of the ways of God, and all professors for God’s sake.”

It pains me to write this, but to a large degree, Winthrop’s prophetic words have come to pass. If there ever was a time to renew a nation, it’s now. But this renewal can only come with a renewed understanding of the kind of liberty John and Robert Winthrop had in mind: self-government under God.

Dr. Christian Overman is the Founding Director of Worldview Matters (worldviewmatters.com). He is the author of Assumptions That Affect Our Lives, God’s Pleasure At Work, and The Difference One Life Can Make. Dr. Overman has taught on the topic of biblical worldview across America, as well as in Central America, Europe, Africa, and Asia. He and his wife, Kathy, have four adult children and ten grandchildren. Contact Dr. Overman at: overman@biblicalworldview.com, or call 877-624-0230.


This article originally appeared in The RENEWANATION Review, Volume 6 Issue 2. If you would like to become a member and receive a print edition of the magazine, please click here. If you would like to learn about other ways you can get involved, please click here.