There are two types of people, Mark Twain used to say. Those who separate people into two types of people and those who do not.
I thought of that last week while attending the annual dinner put on by my son's high school to honor the football team. My son's team had an 0-8-1 record. That's right, no wins. But he had gotten to play some so he wasn't all that upset. Sitting next to my wife and me was a father whose son was a back- up quarterback. A former foreign service officer, he now works for a major New York bank.He looked like a former State Department type. Slight of built, refined features, good table manners and a friendly attitude. Naturally our conversation got around to the Iranian arms scandal.
"The problem is that the people of the United States have to come to terms with the fact that the United States can be a major world power or a major moral power," he said with a troubled look, "but the United States cannot be both."
During the Iranian hostage crisis under President Carter, he went on to say, many in the State Department grudgingly came to that conclusion. "Many of us finally began to believe that in this world, a major political nation state cannot operate effectively by keeping its gloves on. When dealing with immoral, devious and untrustworthy people, it's often necessary to act similarly if that nation is going to maintain political clout in the world."
Mark Twain would not have agreed. I'm certain he would have said that nations, like people, gain their strength from moral actions. Nations, like people, are undermined, he would have said, when they stop acting on conviction and begin temporizing their ideals of what is right and wrong with what works best now.
That's what Mark Twain would have said as a young man. He died a sad cynic. And, though he probably would not have agreed with the former foreign service officer sitting next to me last week that nations must respond in kind to devious and untrustworthy nations, he would have understood how he came to that sentiment. Mark Twain came to that same conclusion and it demoralized him and ended up twisting his mind and writing into what he called the dark side of the moon.
There are two types of people in the world. The former foreign service officer and Mark Twain are one type. The other are those who believe that there is a power greater than people who can and does intervene in the course of history to see to it that right makes might.
Americans today have often mistakenly thought that our nation has been strong because it did what was right. That's not true. Up until about 40 years ago many, if not most Americans, understood that the strength of this nation came from believing that their is a power greater than man that helped those who sincerely tried to do what was right. Not that they always did it. Not that they even knew what was right. The strength came from their intention to do right and their trust in God to make it all work out.
That's almost a foreign concept today. When I mentioned this to the former foreign service officer, he looked pityingly at me as if I did not understand what the real world was all about.
Without that type of faith it is understandable that people will fall back on themselves to make things right. And in depending on themselves, it is also understandable that they will usually come to the conclusion that any means justify right ends or they will become totally de moralized like Mark Twain.
Abraham Lincoln understood how fragile man is in his ability to sustain right action solely based on his own moral strength. In one of his debates with U.S. Sen. Stephen Douglas, Mr. Lincoln concluded by saying:
"My friend (Mr. Douglas) has said to me that I am a poor hand to quote scripture. I will try it again, however. It is said in one of the admonitions of our Lord, 'As your Father in heaven is perfect, be ye also perfect.' The Savior, I suppose did not expect that any human creature could be perfect as the Father in heaven . . . and he (the son) who did most toward reaching that standard, attained the highest degree or moral perfection. So I say in relation to the principal that all men are created equal, let it be as nearly reached as we can. If we cannot give freedom to every creature, let us do nothing that will impose slavery upon any other creature. Let us then turn this government back into the channel in which the framers of the Constitution originally place it."
In this season that is so holy to so many major religions in the world it is important to remember that those, like Abraham Lincoln, who were sustained by faith ultimately accomplished much good for the world. When not sustained by such faith, as good as they wanted to be, they usually ended up like Mark Twain: sad, ineffective cynics.