When you see children being gassed to death, do you ask, “Where is America?” When you see mothers and children starving in drought-stricken Africa, do you ask “Where is America?” Should we be there? Do we have a special role, a unique moral responsibility in such matters due to our equally unique history?
Just as the nerve-gas bombs were falling in Syria several days ago — and more scenes of the horrible drought in Africa and elsewhere appeared — I ran across what my ancestral cousin thought about such matters well over a century ago, in 1898. Many of my generation would read this and say, “Yes, this is the America I know and I fear we are losing.”
My cousin, a missionary writing in remote India, saw the mantle of moral leadership being thrust upon America that long ago. He sensed an American exceptionalism that our founding fathers designed, that Lincoln cited at Gettysburg, and that we fought to preserve in gas-filled trenches of WWI and at Iwo Jima and Normandy in WWII.
Writing on the eve of the Spanish-American War, he called it “A Case of Manifest Destiny.”
“Righteousness has exalted this nation. Our people have received the most valuable institutions man can have. We have gone through the tempest of war, been cursed with slavery and freed the slaves, and freely received from foreign shores every conceivable wreck of man and built him into the republic. ‘Legislation without precedent was produced off-hand by the instincts of the people.’ The Pilgrims and Puritans fathers laid a foundation on which their sons framed a government that has become the envy and wonder of statesmen around the world. The free government of a free people is no longer an experiment. Planted in weakness, it has grown to power.
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“Because Americans now enjoy this power, a great obligation rests on them.
Free speech, a free press, free institutions of every kind were bought at great sacrifice. Freedom of conscience, separation of Church and State, and other priceless blessings were reaped through the toil and sacrifices of generations of pure-souled men and women.
“America’s duty is not to rob, not to make conquests, nor to seek new power but rather to give the world life more abundant. God’s commands to better the condition of the world are unmistakable. No man can live merely for himself — nor can a nation. This great nation is ordained for a larger life than mere money-getting. God’s idea is that American’s men and means are for the betterment of the world.
“This duty is pointedly the task of the United States. Her history has always been written by the side of the struggling. Her people have all come from the oppressed classes of the world. Hitherto she has lived for self, built high fences of tariff and self-interest and said, “It is not my business to meddle with the affairs of the world.’ But God has ordered otherwise.”
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I was surprised that my cousin — in 1898 and for six years a missionary absent from America — could have such a vision of American exceptionalism and world leadership. He was obviously writing from a religious perspective, an encouragement and call for helping the poor and the helpless — such as children in war-torn, drought-stricken countries that are no longer even countries. ‘As ye did it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye did it unto me.’
The pragmatics of working our Judeo-Christian ethics into debates about just wars and military action are admittedly difficult. But I cite what my cousin wrote 119 years ago, “No man can live merely for himself — nor can a nation.” Who will save the children?
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Ohio native James F. Burns, a retired professor at the University of Florida, is an occasional contributor.