The Faith of Our Fathers


By H. W. PRENTIS, JR., President, Armstrong Cork Company, Lancaster, Pa.; Chairman of the Board, National Association of Manufacturers

Before Joint Meeting of Iowa Manufacturers Association and National Association of Manufacturers,Des Moines, Iowa, October 29, 1941

Vital Speeches of the Day, Vol. VIII, pp. 133-137.

AS your presiding officer has stated, I propose to talk to you tonight about "The Faith of Our Fathers—The Hope of America's Future." Some of the things I shall say, may shock you. However, as a professor at Princeton University stated in a book that I read some years ago: "The earmark of sanity is the willingness to face reality." In other words, nobody gains anything by refusing to look facts square in the face—by seeking escape in wish-fancy. So let us first try sensibly and sanely to appraise the situation that confronts us.

The world has never had to meet such a momentous crisis as the present one. Its climax is likely to transcend in importance the dissolution of the Roman Empire which ushered in the eight hundred year period that we call the Dark Ages. Even the fall of Rome, however, did not affect the ancient civilizations of China, Japan and India. But such is the interdependence of all parts of the world today that what is happening at the present moment is bound to influence in some fashion the life of every individual and of every community on the globe.

To all intents and purposes, our own nation is now at war. Whatever anyone may think of the policies that have led us there; of the methods that have taken out of the hands of Congress its specific constitutional prerogative to declare war, we are actually engaged in hostilities today. Hence as loyal Americans, it is now our imperative duty to support to the limit every effort that will help our country's armed forces win a speedy and complete victory over totalitarianism everywhere. American industry—and only American industry—can provide the munitions required to accomplish that objective. And be it said that never in the world's history has so much been accomplished in so brief a period of time as American manufacturers have achieved in the past sixteen months in face of lack of intelligent government planning and utterly unfair labor legislation.

The year 1942 or 1943, I venture to predict—barring some miracle—will see American soldiers and sailors again fighting overseas. Mere defense against physical invasion certainly would not require an army of 4,000,000 men that is now being planned for, or the ultimate expenditure of 120 billion dollars for military purposes—one-third of our total national wealth! As I see it, the die is cast. We go forth once again to try to make the world safe for its self-governing peoples. What the final outcome will be, is concealed in the unfolding scroll of time. But certainly we should not deceive ourselves as to what we face. Only if we are realists now, can we intelligently plan our future course so as to have at least a chance to preserve the inestimable values of personal freedom here at home.

It is unlikely that the enormous debt we are now piling up will ever be paid. In fact, Federal deficits are not likely to cease even when the present emergency is over. The National Resources Commission of the Federal government is already planning huge expenditures for public works, allegedly designed to tide us over the post-war depression. One of their recent booklets explains that there is no reason to worry about the public debt since, to use the Commission's own words: "Doing the job pays the bill"; that "At last we are beginning to see that finance was made for man, and not man for finance!"

The Federal debt, which will rise in all probability to 150 billion dollars, will be made bearable for the masses—who have the votes—by permitting prices and wages to go up eventually four or five hundred per cent. Simultaneously, the thrifty middle classes will "pay the piper" by having the effective value of their savings—bank deposits, insurance policies, mortgages and bonds—reduced to one-fourth or one-fifth of their present purchasing power. Heavy income taxes and estate taxes combined with low interest rates, will make it virtually impossible to acquire and pass along more than a very modest competence to one's children. Organized pressure groups will steadily increase their demands on the public treasury. How far that process has already gone, is startling. Mr. James Burnham calculates in his remarkable book, "The Managerial Revolution," that about one-half of the population of the United States is today directly or indirectly dependent on government. Self-reliance, the economic moral fibre of great multitudes of our people, has already been seriously undermined. Look up the government subsidy figures for your own community. Take my own County of Lancaster, Pennsylvania: 653 people on public and private relief in August 1929; today (October 1941) 9,020 persons are receiving public subsidies in some form or other despite greater employment in our local industries than ever before in our history!

To most people the abundant life connotes mere physical plenty. And every student of human nature knows perfectlywell that the material desires of mankind are literally unlimited. The communist, Lenin, took that fact into account when he pointed out years ago that the surest way to destroy our type of self-government would be to lead the people to believe that public authority could permanently supply them either with jobs or the means of livelihood. For in that event the people's demands, as Lenin foresaw, would become so insatiable that no free government could possibly withstand them financially. Deficits, he went on to say, would rapidly pile up; financial chaos would ensue, and eventually the destruction of the government would follow inevitably. I fear we can see more than merely the beginnings of that process at work in America today.

The more I read history, the more I am convinced that the intangible yet very real blessings of political, intellectual and spiritual freedom that meant so much to our forefathers, cannot be maintained very long unless the individual citizen is willing to accept a very large measure of personal responsibility for his own economic welfare. In other words, he must assume a considerable personal economic risk if he would insure to himself the spiritual satisfaction of liberty. For once the people ask government to accept responsibility for their economic security, they soon find themselves powerless to control the Frankenstein monster thus called into being, whose appetite for power and more power is literally insatiable. Old Thomas Hobbes—the eminent English political philosopher writing in the 17th century—called his famous treatise on government, "The Leviathan," for that very reason!

History shows that the right to acquire and use private property in a vocation of one's own choice, in other words, the right to enterprise on one's own account; representative democracy; and civil and religious liberty—stand or fall together. The tragic events of the past twenty years in Italy, Russia and Germany prove that fact incontrovertibly. However, we have those among us who, having eyes, see not, and having ears, hear not the plainly written lessons of human experience. And as many eminent social philosophers have pointed out, social movements once under way are rarely, if ever, arrested until they have run their logical course. So while I pray that God may prevent such an eventuality, the American people may yet have to learn at first hand what despotism and tyranny really are, before they turn again to the faith of our fathers and become willing to sacrifice the Golden Calf of fleeting economic security on the altar of political, intellectual and religious freedom.

Our own Benjamin Franklin once said: "Those who would give up essential liberty to purchase a little temporary safety, deserve neither liberty nor safety." And Polybius, the old Greek historian, sagely observed two thousand years ago: "Once there has been created among the masses an appetite for gifts and the habit of receiving them, democracy in its turn is abolished and turns into a rule of force."

A dark picture? Yes! A fearsome prospect? Yes! But, as I said before, we cannot prepare intelligently and courageously to meet any peril unless we understand what we may have to face. "The secret of liberty is courage," said Pericles. And I, for one, do not propose to fold my arms supinely and await my fate without protest. Too many Americans through ignorance, complacency or fear are doing that very thing today. James Bryce pointed out years ago that one of the greatest dangers of our representative democracy is, to use his words, "The fatalism of the multitude, a sense of the insignificance of personal effort." One of the most eminent living Americans said to me only a few weeks ago: "The American people seem to have lost their power of expressingrighteous indignation." May Heaven stir us to enlightened action in defense of our precious freedoms before it is too late!

That brings up the question: As our soldiers and sailors serve valiantly on land and sea, what can we civilians do to defend our country at this critical hour, and to preserve its free institutions for our children and children's children? First and foremost, we can try to understand the principles on which the American Republic was founded and then become vocal in their support. How, I ask you, can any human institution be created in the first place, and then continue to exist, if no one takes the trouble to acquire faith in its principles and then fight for them? How can any business institution represented here tonight expect to continue to prosper if those responsible for its guidance are not constant crusaders in its behalf? How can any club, any church, let alone popular self-government, hope to continue to exist unless its adherents are active and articulate in its support! Yet how many of you—who are certainly far better educated than the average American—could mount a platform this evening with Earl Browder, Norman Thomas, or some well-intentioned New Liberal like Rex Tugwell, and make even a sketchy defense of the principles on which the American Republic is based? The truth of the matter is that the average American—in contradistinction to his forebears—has no political philosophy. He has never taken the time to study and understand the philosophic and religious principles on which our republic was founded. Meanwhile, the advocates of collectivism have for a generation been crying their theories from every housetop, so that today the American public as a whole have lost their old understanding of, and pride in, our free institutions and are easy prey for the demagogue who takes them up on a high mountain and shows them the kingdoms of easy living and will-o'-the-wisp economic abundance which they can have if they will only follow his fatuous theories.

Time does not permit a detailed discussion of the political philosophy that underlies the faith of our fathers. So I shall stress tonight only those principles of essentially spiritual character on which the American Republic was founded. We can all draw new courage and inspiration from their contemplation at this critical hour in our national history.

Two hundred years before Luther nailed his theses on the chapel door of Wittenberg, John Wyclif started the British Reformation in Oxford, England. He did three things of paramount importance for the political development of the English-speaking peoples: First, he was responsible for the organization of the great British middle class, including workers, peasants, artisans and yeomen, into groups called "conventicles," meaning houses where the common people got together for prayer and worship. These "Congregations" were the forerunners of the right of free assemblage in the English-speaking world. Out of these congregations there later developed the town meeting of New England, that played such an important part in the development of our American Republic.

In the second place, John Wyclif translated parts of the New Testament into English. With the utmost daring he placed his translations in the hands of common people all over England. It is hard for us today to realize what a soul-stirring experience it was for an English peasant thus to hear at first-hand the very voice of the Lord God Himself. Whether the humble people into whose hands the Testament came were capable of interpreting its message correctly or not, Wyclif claimed and backed his assertion with the testimony of the Bible itself, that no church, no government, no individual could possibly stand between a man and his spiritual responsibility; that there are some things everyone must think outfor himself; that nobody can take from another human being that degree of responsibility necessary for his own growth and development. Thus Englishmen came to believe that the Bible was literally their charter of liberty. Many grasped and asserted the right of private interpretation of the Scriptures. Transferred later to the political arena, the consciousness of this right led directly to the great doctrine of the right of private judgment which, in turn, abolished persecution and censorships, set human minds free and made the individual citizen with his consent to be governed the foundation stone of modern democracy.

In the third place, Wyclif asserted that the sacraments of the church meant nothing unless the individual who accepts them knows what he is doing and what they signify. In other words, man is a free and sentient individual with personal moral responsibility in matters of faith. This was one of the outstanding characteristics of the early settlers in America. They came to the shores of a new continent impregnated with the principles of personal moral responsibility, the right of private judgment and the right of free assembly, which together filled them with a fervent passion and unshakable belief in the inward spirituality of the individual. They based their political philosophy and their economic system on the concept that there is something about the human spirit that is sacred; that there is a place in the human soul that no government and no man may justly enter; where reside those inalienable rights that the Declaration of Independence later thundered so eloquently to the world.

With this principle as the foundation, let us see how our forefathers erected the tripartite structure on which our individual freedom rests today. First they maintained that if man did possess a sacred personality, he had the right to choose who should rule over him. On that thesis they reared the first supporting tower of our edifice of liberty—representative constitutional democracy. Again they argued that since man possessed a sacred personality, he had the right to think, speak, assemble and worship as he saw fit. On that concept they erected the second tower of the structure of liberty—civil and religious freedom. And finally they reasoned that any man endowed with a sacred personality had the right to possess for himself such portion of the God-given resources of the earth as he could win by honest toil and effort. Thus they asserted every individual's right to private property and economic activity of his own choice, and on that basic tenet they built the third supporting tower of their temple of liberty—free private enterprise. These three towers stand or fall together. Destroy any one of them, and the whole structure of freedom soon collapses.

This whole process was not accomplished haphazardly. It was not the result of chance or circumstance. On the contrary, it was the fruit of generations of thought and sweat and tears and blood. That tripod of freedom is our most precious heritage in America today. How rarely blessed we are as a people may be realized from the fact that of the approximately forty billion human beings who have lived on this earth since the birth of Christ, less than three per cent have ever enjoyed freedom that even approaches the liberty that we enjoy in the United States at this very hour. And all of it goes back to that spiritual principle which is common to all three of our great faiths—Judaism, Catholicism and Protestantism; the principle of the sacredness of the individual soul—a principle for which the church has fought through the centuries.

To avoid misunderstanding, let me make crystal clear that when I use the term, free private enterprise, I do not mean the old laissez-faire of Adam Smith. I mean free private enterprise with reasonable umpiring on the part ofgovernment to ensure fair play, and to prevent abuses that lead to oppression and monopoly. But we must keep in mind that there is a vast difference between umpiring, i.e., government regulation, and outright government control. For when government ceases to be an umpire and with the full force of its dominating authority, steps into the business game itself, many a private player concludes that his chances of winning are so greatly diminished that a seat on the side lines is preferable. So individual initiative disappears, and the well-springs of economic progress dry up.

In contrast to the regard for the individual displayed by our forebears, all modern radicals—regardless of whether they call themselves communists, socialists, fascists, nazis, or American new liberals—deny or tend to deny the reality and sacredness of the individual. Dr. John Dewey—the most prominent American philosopher of the past forty years—for example, says in his "Human Nature and Conduct" that anybody who thinks that there is anything spiritual or inner or personal about the individual must believe that there is something incommunicable and exclusive about the individual. Anybody who talks about such things is merely repeating an old worn-out aristocratic prejudice, for one cannot be democratic, he asserts, and believe in the inner spiritual sanctity of human beings. To be scrupulously fair, I want to add that Dr. Dewey in his most recent writings does not seem to be quite so sure of his earlier position regarding the sacredness of the individual soul. The terrible fruits of collectivism in Russia, Italy and Germany are making many of our "advanced" thinkers of the new liberal type stop, look and listen. But the impress of Dr. Dewey's earlier teachings is evident today in the attitude of thousands of educated people in America toward social, economic and governmental problems.

The issue stripped to its bare fundamentals is this: Is man a divinely created personality made in God's own image, endowed with certain inalienable rights which must be respected by the state—his servant? Or is man merely a physico-chemical combination of reflexes worthy of nothing more than to be the servant of the state—a briefly living cell in the body politic which can contribute most to social progress by being used by that body for its own purposes and aggrandizement?

According to the philosophy of all the collectivists—communists, socialists, nazis, fascists and new liberals—the government, which is the sovereign will of man acting as a mass, grants such powers of property and liberty to the people as it sees fit. Contrariwise, according to the philosophy of the English-speaking peoples, citizens set up a democratic government and grant it only such powers, funds and privileges as the citizens see fit. There is no compromise possible between these two ideas. The English-speaking peoples may not have done as much for music and art as other races of mankind, but they have made one outstanding contribution to the human race: In their passion for individualism, they conceived constitutional representative democracy with its concomitants—free private enterprise and civil and religious liberty—and have made it work successfully in producing the highest general level of material comfort and spiritual opportunity the world has ever known. Nietzsche, the German, acknowledged that fact when he said he could never forgive the Jews for inventing Christianity or the English for inventing democracy.

In America, the so-called new liberals or progressives are convinced that the process of social evolution is inevitably toward a planned economy. They welcome the ideals of collectivism but do not want to go the whole distance on the road to Moscow or Berlin. Actually they are reactionariesat heart because, without realizing it, they are advocating policies that will eventually destroy representative democracy, free private enterprise, and civil and religious liberty—the tripod on which human freedom rests. As Stalin said in 1934: "Without getting rid of capitalism and abandoning the system of private ownership in the means of production, you cannot create planned economy." In other words, you cannot have a planned economy without going the whole way to state socialism. Theoretically, state socialism and religion are not incompatible. But in actual practice, a communistic, socialistic or nazi or fascist government, in order to carry through its long-range economic programs successfully, would simply have to mold public opinion favorably so as to keep itself in power during the lengthy periods required to bring such plans to fruition. And to do that the government obviously would have to influence or control what was printed in the newspapers, what was said on the radio, what was taught in the schools and what was preached in the churches—at least so far as any doctrine advocated was at variance with the set program of the state. This fact has been clearly recognized by all the great collectivists and anyone can see the proof of the pudding in the totalitarian states today. Then I ask you: What becomes of civil and religious liberty? And when they are undermined, what happens to political freedom—representative democracy? The legs of the tripod of freedom stand or fall together. Like the Three Musketeers, it is "All for one and one for all."

What then can we do to stem the tide of this alien philosophy of government which tends to engulf us—the "coming slavery of socialism" as Herbert Spencer put it? A tide which is swelled to hurricane proportions by the inexorable demands of total war?

First as to businessmen: Any fair-minded man will admit that free private enterprise has its faults—and many of them. What human institution does not? Representative democracy, organized religion, free private enterprise—nothing that relies on frail human beings can rise to any higher ethical level than the individuals who compose those institutions. In years gone by, there was a sad lack of personal responsibility, and ethical standards of conduct on the part of many leaders in business, banking and commerce. But substantial progress has been made, I am convinced, in the past decade through enlightened leadership—leadership that recognizes that the keystone of our freedom is the voluntary acceptance of the obligations of social stewardship.

If our republic is to be preserved, businessmen must recognize their historic mission as preservers of the precious values of human liberty. To that end they should be shining examples of civic virtue, using that phrase in its classic sense. They must eliminate unethical practices in their own enterprises so that business can always come into the court of public opinion with clean hands; they must be keenly conscious of the social significance of their day-by-day decisions; they must be good stewards of the responsibilities with which individual freedom has entrusted them; they must steadily seek ways and means of regularizing employment and cushioning the effect of advancing technology on the lives and fortunes of their workers; they must raise the standard of living by passing along the benefits of improved technique and quantity production through lower prices and higher wages; they must constantly endeavor to create better conditions of employment by the elimination of health and accident hazards; they must take an active part in politics and public affairs; they must seek to be industrial statesmen rather than mere businessmen.

Second, as to education: I am not disposed to blame our schools and colleges for failure to inculcate the philosophicprinciples on which our government was established in the minds of the present and the past two generations of American citizens. After all, the degree of leadership that education can provide in a republic is determined by the current temper of the people. We Americans have been so engrossed for the past hundred years in our material affairs that we have simply not been interested in government. Hence it is no wonder that the study of religion, political philosophy and classical history has gone into the discard. We must recognize, however, that facts never influence the mass mind as do ideas. With all our emphasis on materialism, education has been compelled to follow the crowd and teach concrete things rather than emphasize the abstract theories and principles which underlie and, in the long run, determine the facts of human existence. Has not the time come, however, when our schools and colleges would find intelligent backing in stressing the value of a good old-fashioned liberal arts education? If our republic is to survive, we must instill in the minds of our citizens not only knowledge of our political institutions, their history and how they work, but also faith and pride in what these institutions stand for; whence they came and with how much travail of body and spirit they were created.

Now as to the church: No institution has more at stake in the conflict between individualism and collectivism than organized religion. As Walter Lippmann so truthfully says in his book, "The Good Society":

"The real reason for the irreligion of Fascists and Communists is that religion cultivates a respect for men as men. Against that respect, the totalitarian state cannot long prevail. . . . The dictators . . . are not stupid men. They have seen truly that the religious experience must forever raise up new enemies of the totalitarian state."

The political philosophy of the English-speaking peoples, as we have seen, is based on religious faith, on the sacredness of the individual human soul. In that respect representative democracy certainly comes closer to the religious ideal than any other form of government that the race has yet devised. It is indeed a tragedy, therefore, to find our fundamental political philosophy unwittingly attacked and undermined by good religious men and women, who, in their keen anxiety and praiseworthy zeal to help the unfortunate improve their economic status, fail to realize that the remedies they seek through expanding government control, will eventually destroy American democracy and religious liberty itself. Christ said: "Think not that I am come to send peace on earth; I come not to send peace, but a sword." And I have thought frequently in these recent years that perhaps the explanation of that statement of His is to be found in the fact that our society today is permeated with Christ's admonitionto bring food and raiment and shelter to the needy without having at the same time enough individual unselfishness to make the attainment of that ideal possible without coercion.

So all humanitarians find themselves impaled on a soul-disturbing dilemma. Shall we try to bring social justice (and when we use that term we are usually thinking of material things, not things of the spirit) by coercion, by asking government to drive into line those who will not do their part, and in so doing run the risk of destroying representative democracy and ultimately freedom itself? Or shall we rely on the process of secular and religious education gradually to raise our individual citizens to a spiritual plane where they will recognize their social responsibility and voluntarily cooperate in raising the economic status of the unfortunate in our midst? We must admit that under representative democracy the human race has made substantial progress in its attitude toward women, children, the sick, the insane, the aged, and many of those who have to toil on the weary highway of life, and hence should think well and carefully before advocating coercive shortcuts to social justice that history shows will inevitably bring down the temple of self-government on the church's own head.

Dr. Goodspeed points out in his recent book, "The Four Pillars of Democracy," that the religious man does not ask what the world can do for him, but what he can do for the world. If in the end the world does more for him than he has done for it, he considers that he has failed. Is not that the very attitude that the true American patriot must have toward his country at the present moment—in fact always—if our Republic is to survive? As the late Glenn Frank declared: "Democracy cannot survive apart from a spiritualized religion that preserves in man a sense of the sanctity of the individual human spirit."

We live today in the shadow of war. We live to see helpless civilian populations blotted out as death rains from the sky. We live to see the sanctity of treaties and contracts violated at the caprice of wilful men. We live to see the culture and art of nations degraded by the sort of tyranny and cruelty that characterized the Dark Ages. We live to see old symbols of honesty, sincerity and character mutilated under the heel of brutal military power. In the midst of such chaos, when moral and intellectual ideals are obscured and stained with crass selfishness and overweening ambition; when bewildered peoples eagerly grasp at the tenuous straws of alleged economic security offered by strongly centralized governments; when those who sit in the seats of power are themselves confused and distraught; when, as Emerson said, "Things sit in the saddle and ride men," America must turn again to the faith of her fathers for national salvation.