What a pleasure it is to be here today. It is a great honor to be invited to talk at an institution I cherish so much and esteem so highly. Though I never had the chance to walk the halls of this building as a student, the spirit of the school has not changed and it is ever so refreshing to be back among you again.
And being among you as I am and being fresh home from Iraq, I have some words that God has placed heavily on my heart to share with you today. To the students especially, but to the faculty as well, and to anyone else who may be here, this is meant for everyone when I say: this endeavor in which you are engaged is no different than the military one in which I have participated for these past months; and in my eyes, in fact, it is infinitely more important. In these classrooms and amongst these fellows, you are laying within yourselves the foundations of character and gaining an intimacy with those principles of moral and civic virtue that give rise to the culture uniquely suited to support and defend liberty in America.
Let me assure you that though the battlefield may constitute the stuff of legends, the seeds of victory were sown first in the classroom. For this is where knowledge and experience are synthesized and explored in the lessons of history, where wisdom is cultivated from study and integrity is forged through rigor. Lest you think, that what you are a part of is merely middle or high school, let me remind you that this—all of this we see before us—is the validation of a great sacrifice and the continued hope of a 235 year endeavor for the sake of liberty. Now you might struggle to see the link between the preservation of freedom and third period Algebra. I know I did. So if I may, let me paint a clearer picture.
The character of a country or its national identity is often summed up in grandiose generalizations that get thrown about in all sorts of ways. Words like liberty are o repeated in different situations to different audiences, and they are used to define a broad spectrum of generally related but not necessarily congruent ideas. So when I say liberty or freedom, let me be clear: I mean to describe the situation which uniquely exists within this country, in which, a person may exist in the absence of a tyrannical force. Freedom in the United States is not, contrary to popular opinion, the ability to do whatever you want, for we do have laws. But it is the assurance that when and where governing rules are necessary, they will be made in accordance to the consent of the governed.
The “absence of tyranny” and the “consent of the governed”— these are statements that broadly describe the political ideology of the United States, an ideology that is the direct product of a unique culture which fosters its creation. While the typical explanation may stop there, permit me to extend it further in order to explore, to its fullest depth, the nature of liberty within our country. The danger here is that liberty might become, like so many concepts, a subjective mess of personal opinion changing over time. Politics often enjoys the ambiguous uses of words creating different meanings in different settings. Yet here, in this place, it is taught that liberty holds a permanent meaning that relies on the only source of absolute truth this world has ever known. This teaching has given liberty its lasting meaning and its permanent definition in the heritage of our nation. For though man might love liberty, man is fickle, and the long term benefits of liberty take on a dull sheen when compared to the mesmerizing glitter of power. Without Christ as the foundation, liberty is just a hopeful ash in the darkness; and, though reason may be an able guardian, it is nally defeated by the forgetfulness of time. Manifested in those who face the apparent horrors of future darkness without the hope of Christ’s promises, liberty is quickly downplayed, quickly redefined, quickly discarded for the naïveté of man’s self-assured desire to control his destiny.
And with that statement, we meet head- on with the crux: the link between your education and the preservation of liberty. These classrooms where a boy and a girl might first learn the tradition of Fides, Veritas, and Ministerium are the proving grounds of
the most responsible member of society, the common citizen. Responsibility derives from the implications embodied in: “consent of the governed.” Consent implies involvement in the governing of the nation. Out of the people come the leaders who must, at their very core understand that the nature of this responsibility is built upon the ideals of personal sacrifice and service. Year-after-year, generation-after- generation, the common citizens are responsible for the protection of the heritage of liberty through the development of a society that encourages the growth of servant leaders. Each successive generation learning from those preceding it— first of the moral principles that stand as its foundation and then of the knowledge that stands as its defense—carries on a tradition that one generation, long ago, lived, fought, and died for.
Here, students, you are engaged in the endeavor of holding together the great defense of liberty against the tremendous onslaught of forces—both without and, more importantly, within—that conspire every day to overrun its great bulwarks. Liberty rests on this precarious balance held up by a culture that understands the foundations of liberty are laid in Christ and the defense of liberty is laid in the traditions of Western society. On all sides are enemies, foreign and domestic, persons and causes, immorality, and foolishness. Christ Jesus, through the Bible, provides the perspective through which reason can be applied effectively and thus gives, in the words of John Adams, “the only system that ever did or ever will preserve a republic in this world.”
Coming home from a war, you might think I would want to speak of external enemies. We have faced quite a few and continue to face them today. When it comes to sheer force, the American Revolution provides an excellent picture of a war in which we faced an overwhelming enemy and overcame insurmountable odds. Communism was an insidious complication to the hopes of American liberty and an ideological attack designed specifically to bring our country to its knees. Today, radical Islam and its followers pose an overwhelmingly significant threat that few people fully appreciate and that our nation is struggling to confront. And while all these foes give cause for concern, they pale in comparison to the task in which you are now engaged. Although these foes caused great concern in their time and continue to do so today, the cause for liberty at home is the primary concern and the great cause of the American people for all time. Enemies will always lurk on the horizon, and we will need to deal with them. But as the old proverb says—to know your enemy, you must first know yourself.
As early as 1630, John Winthrop noted, “We shall be as a City upon a Hill, the eyes of all people are upon us.” And with the world watching, we the people have taken a great risk and embarked on a great experiment, to see if the citizens of a country might be capable of governing themselves. Tyranny, while unfamiliar to us today, is always as near as one man’s ambition for power is to overwhelming the construct that we the people have erected against it: The Constitution. Against those who would abuse power, who would distort liberty for their own purposes, and who would pay it only lip service in an effort to gain influence, we are defended by our Constitution: a construct of laws which relies on a foundation of culture to preserve it against the steady erosion of ambition’s rising tides. That culture, a very particular one as I noted before, defends by doing just what you do here: endeavoring to learn, disciplining your mind, and building your character to be one who cries out at the very mention of tyranny or injustice, “NEVER!”
I want to remind you of the genuine wonder that is our country because, as Abraham Lincoln so eloquently predicted to another school-age crowd in 1838, “what the invading foeman could never do, the silent artillery of time has done.”
Liberty, which once stood as, “the last best hope of earth,” now rolls o the tongue with an ease that belies the troubling indifference of familiarity’s creation. The concept of liberty once held such a lofty position as to compel the founders—who within their group controlled a significant portion of the power existing within the country at the time—to impose and enforce upon themselves the restrictions of law, thus preventing tyranny and ensuring liberty to all their countrymen. This is not the commonplace; this is the stuff of legends. It was the classroom that created the culture which brought these men to the forefront. It was the principles instilled in the years of youth that ensured that they would choose the harder right over the easier wrong.
So I say to you, Press On! Press ON! Never wonder whether what you are doing matters. On those long nights and interminable days, do not forget: you are not merely students but fellows with wily Odysseus and Pallas Athena in the epic of our time.