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John Ben Shepperd: Men’s Club of the First Christian Church

February 22, 1956

Men’s Club of the First Christian Church (Corpus Christi, Texas)

Government is a very important factor in our lives, and there are certain things Christians ought to remember about it. It was Thomas Jefferson who first pointed out that this country was not in any sense founded upon the Christian religion. We believe in the absolute separation of church and state and complete freedom of worship, and churches of all faiths enjoy equal protection under our laws.

Nevertheless no government can long survive that is not founded upon sound morals, and sound morals cannot exist where there is no religion. George Washington, the greatest force in the founding of our country, whose birth we have celebrated today because the ideals he believed in have proved sound, said: “Let us indulge with caution the supposition that morality can be maintained without religion. Reason and experience forbid us to expect that national morality can prevail in exclusion of religious principle.”

This was Washington’s way of saying that a Constitution, after all, is only an agreement, and a government can exist only so long as men abide by the agreement in good faith. And sometimes it takes real religion to live up to a contract.

However, it is a mistake to think of Christianity as being merely one of the pillars that support free government. The Bible was written long before the Bill of Rights, and will be read when our political system is only a memory. I am not willing that Christianity should ever become a tool of democracy, and I don’t believe God cares to rubber-stamp the American way of life. But I think we have to admit that the outstanding success of the Christian Gospel in this country cannot be separated from the form of government we enjoy. To say that Religion owes nothing to Uncle Sam is as fallacious as saying that a flower owes nothing to the soil in which it grows best.

Therefore I believe very strongly that an apathy, negligence, disloyalty or ingratitude on our part which tends to the destruction of our Constitutional form of government is as un-Christian as theft, lying, hypocrisy, crookedness or what-have-you.

While I will not profane this Christian gathering by arguing politics, I will argue with my dying breath the Christian, Constitutional issue underlying the Harris Bill, the Tidelands, the loss of state highway and conservation laws, the forfeiture of jurisdiction over labor-management relations, and a hundred other cases in which the clear provisions of the Constitution have been submerged under the cloud of expediency, and the Constitution in effect amended by Judicial fiat instead of by the will of all the people.

We have heard the voices of statesmen and politicians, oil and gas men, management, state administrators, legislatures, and private enterprise raised in howling protest against the dubious methods employed to change the Constitution—but nobody has stood up and declaimed that this is also a Christian issue, a question of simple morality. And that is what it is. Have we come to a time when it takes politicians to defend Christian ethics? We talk about what a boon it is to Christianity to have a benign form of government under which to flourish, and “America the Beautiful” is printed in the hymn books along with “The Old Rugged Cross.” But nobody seems to object, from a purely moral and ethical point of view, when a God-given principle is strangled to death.

I am no prophet, but I am American and a Texan. I am the Attorney General of a sovereign state, sworn before Almighty God to uphold the Constitution of the United States and Texas, and I had rather be a dog and bay at the moon than to sit paralyzed and speechless while the Constitution of these United States is ripped to shreds for any purpose whatever. I could not have sworn to uphold that Constitution if I did not have faith in my ability to keep it separate in my own mind from the principles of any political party, church, association, union, organization or factional interest, and I believe the same effort is required of any Christian who enjoys American citizenship. If the Constitution of the United States is to be changed, let it be changed by Constitutional methods. Let the People decide how it shall read. If there is any Christian virtue left, or any fair dealing among fellow countrymen, let’s run the race according to the rules. Let us have open-handed honesty between political parties. If we have any Christian integrity, let us at all costs maintain the integrity of the Constitution under which we have been privileged to exercise so freely our Christian faith.

Washington achieved a reputation for telling the truth, and he never spoke a truer word than when he said the existence of good government depends on the religious principles of those who comprise it. We cannot hope for Christian leadership unless we have Christian leaders.

In this country we have established and maintained the idea that all men are equal. We have fostered the ideal of liberty and justice for all. It would be unrealistic to say that we have accomplished that ideal perfectly, or that we have always been in agreement about what our objectives are. The Constitution does not guarantee us against human frailty or difference of opinion. It is only a collection of rules under which we have agreed to strive for the perfection envisioned by the founding fathers. The Constitution is a means to a glorious end.

In our striving for perfection we sometimes become impatient and are too prone to abandon the God-given means in order to achieve our ends more quickly. Wherever there are inequalities, either real or imaginary, there are also men who will strive to cure them in a hurry by un-Constitutional means. A man can be a member of any legitimate political party, differ with his fellow citizens in his political views and still be a Christian. But when differences of opinion lead to the destruction of the Constitution for the purpose of imposing one opinion on another, there is only one side for a Christian to be on. The issue ceases to be political and becomes ethical.

In the last few years the federal government has expanded its powers, taking over many functions, jurisdictions and fields of authority formerly reserved to the states. I am not here to argue whether this is right or wrong. Outside the church I have my opinions, which you may have heard expressed in no uncertain terms. I am not here to argue the dozens of cases in which the Supreme Court of the United States has furthered the cause of centralized government, nor to belabor you with indignant outcries over the failure of the President to sign the Harris Bill, which would again have removed natural resources from the control of the federal government. When I came to speak to you as fellow Christians I left my politics outside, and I am asking you to forget yours until I have finished.

Is it in keeping with Christian principle to accomplish any end, either good or bad, by ignoring a clear provision of an Act of Congress, or by violating fundamental principles of the Constitution under which free men have sworn in good faith to live honorably together? Does the end, no matter how good it may seem to some people, justify deception and breach of faith to accomplish it? Are these qualities any less reprehensible in government than in an individual? If the judicial branch of the federal government starts legislating by declaring what it thinks the law ought to be instead of merely interpreting the law as it is, does this have anything to do with you and me as Christians?

Can the churches provide them? Can the churches give us men and women who won’t sacrifice a principle to win a point, and who are never so concerned with the left and the right that they forget the above and below? Can they give us men and women who are willing to pay the price of leadership?

Being a leader means you have to be a sponge and absorb a lot of insult and ingratitude. It means knowing how to face hard, bitter and unscrupulous opposition with a stiffened spine instead of an arched back. It means having the courage to stand alone in the belief that you are right and the crowd is wrong, and often sacrificing your personal popularity on the altar of self-respect. And before it is over, being a Christian leader means that somebody will splatter your white Christian robe with mud and twist your halo around your neck.

In the years ahead this country is going to need a lot of men and women who won’t get into public office through pull and then stop pulling . . . who will make their own records and stand on them, instead of jumping on the other fellow’s . . . and who won’t let Constitutional government die of cold feet because they were afraid to get into hot water. We need a whole generation of young people who are freedom loving because their mothers and fathers were freedom living. The future demands leaders from homes in which the family Bible was in as much demand as the family car. We need men who can follow their conscience and lead the crowd. We don’t need men who can stand on a platform; we need the kind who can stand on their own two feet and kneel on their own two knees.

We Americans are inclined toward the inability to tell the difference between greatness and great success. We tend to judge the value of things from the standpoint of how much prosperity it brings. We need to remind ourselves often that the good things of life are not bought with money.

Nobody can open up a safe deposit box and file away a title to a Texas sunset. No one can lay gold on the counter and buy the look of trust in a child’s eyes. No man can trade hard cash for the companionship of a true friend, or purchase at a price the love and devotion of a good woman. And all the money in all the treasuries of the world is not worth the sound of a mother’s lullaby or the laughter of a free man.

They say that God deals with nations in the same ay he deals with individuals. And as our country and our state are faced with problems and challenges such as we have never seen before, and out of Washington are coming such classic, indicative and often-quoted phrases such as “calculated risk,” “brink of war,” “agonizing reappraisals,” “massive retaliation” and “terrifying implications,” Christian people are asking, “Lord, how shall we preserve our country?”

His answer may well be the same that he gave to the young lawyer who stood up to tempt him, saying, “‘Master, what shall I do to inherit enteral life?’ He said unto him, ‘What is written in the law? How readest thou?’

“And he answering said, ‘Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all they heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy strength, and with all thy mind; and thy neighbor as thy self.’

“And he said unto him, ‘Thou has answered right: this do, and thou shalt live.’”

Please note: The views expressed in these speeches were those of John Ben Shepperd, and do not necessarily represent the views of the John Ben Shepperd Public Leadership Institute or the University of Texas Permian Basin.