Every so often I remember this thing. It happens rarely enough that it comes as a shock. It happened a few weeks ago as I talking with a very beautiful lady who jolted me by describing several veterans of the Civil War who were alive and active in Lowell during her youth.
It happened again when I read about Bill Upham, Jr., who recently passed away in Wisconsin. Mr. Upham was nearly killed by a German shell during WWII, met General Patton and shook hands with President Eisenhower. More impressive, Bill’s own father was nearly killed by a Confederate rifle in the Civil War, met Abraham Lincoln (who asked to see his scar) and guarded Jefferson Davis after the war.
And this is the thing I keep forgetting. We are a young nation, just 240 years old. Some children born before the United States lived to see the Civil War. Some Americans born before the Civil War lived to see WWI and WWII. Many veterans of WWII are alive today.
You could say that we, as a nation, have spanned the lifespan of three children. It is now the age of the Fourth Child. And who will he be, this symbolic representative of those shaping America today, in just the fourth 80-year lifespan of the United States?
It is safe the say that the generation of the First Child thought much about freedom, about how — as our Declaration of Independence states — “to assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God entitle them”. They claimed certain “truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights.”
The Second Child was confronted by the terrible cost of our failure to respect that truth. The clearest voice of that period, standing over thousands of fresh graves, said “[W]e here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain — that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom — and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.”
The Third Child endured a withering economic depression, horrible wars. In his statement to Congress after the attack on Pearl Harbor, President Roosevelt said “Rapid and united effort by all the peoples of the world who are determined to remain free will insure a world victory of the forces of justice and of righteousness over the forces of savagery and of barbarism”.
We see, in the generation of the First, Second and Third Child, frequent references to “Justice”, “Righteousness”, to “Freedom” and a nation “under God”. We see moral certainty which makes us flinch, religious language which makes us cringe, dreadful violations of the spirit of our own age.
I was in a meeting the other day and, during a discussion of ethics, I had the impertinence to mention God. I was commanded, with a loud voice and wagging finger, “Don’t bring God in here”, to which I even more impertinently replied “Do you know of a way to keep him out?”.
But this is the question of the day; the civil war that is emerging during our own moment in the brief history of these United States. We have entered the age of the Fourth Child, who is intent upon learning as little as possible about those who came before and even less about the faith and conviction that inspired them and informed their laws and culture. He claims, modestly, to know nothing certain about God, and vehemently claims – quite immodestly – that no one else does either.
He has inherited his fathers’ land, but not their soul. He thinks, to use words from Abraham Lincoln, “that all these blessings were produced by some superior wisdom and virtue of our own. Intoxicated with unbroken success, we have become too self-sufficient to feel the necessity of redeeming and preserving grace, too proud to pray to the God that made us”.