Harry Truman: Freedom’s Religious Roots, Morality and the Law, and Making the Case for the War in Korea – 3 April 1951

President Harry S. Truman, 1945, Greta Kempton, official White House portrait (cropped).


Address at the Cornerstone Laying of the New York Avenue Presbyterian Church, April 3, 1951

The essential mission of the church is to teach the moral law. We look to our churches, above all other agencies, to teach us the highest moral standards of right and wrong. We rely on the churches particularly to instill into our young people those moral ideals which are the basis of our free institutions.

This great Republic is founded on a firm foundation based on those very principles-the Constitution of the United States.

Religion is not an easy thing. It is not simply a comfort to those in trouble or a means of escaping from present difficulties, as some people today would have us believe.

Religion is not a negative thing. It is not merely a series of prohibitions against certain actions because they are wicked.

Our religion includes these elements. But it also includes much more. It is a positive force that impels us to affirmative action. We are under divine orders—not only to refrain from doing evil, but also to do good and to make this world a better place in which to live.

Every one of us should measure the actions of his daily life against this moral code which our religion gives us. Every one of us, according to the strength and wisdom God gives to him, should try his best every day to live up to these religious teachings.

More than this, religion should establish moral standards for the conduct of our whole Nation, at home and abroad. We should judge our achievements, as a nation, in the scales of right and wrong.

The democracy we cherish and our free institutions depend upon the observance of the moral code—in private life and also in public life. Selfishness and greed can tear this Nation apart, just as they have torn apart other great nations in the past. Our only defense against them is to follow those moral principles which have been handed down to us by our forefathers and which are enshrined today in churches such as this one.

We talk a lot these days about freedom-freedom for the individual and freedom among nations. Freedom for the human soul is, indeed, the most important principle of our civilization. We must always remember, however, that the freedom we are talking about is freedom based upon moral principles. Without a firm moral foundation, freedom degenerates quickly into selfishness and license. Unless men exercise their freedom in a just and honest way, within moral restraints, a free society can degenerate into anarchy. Then there will be freedom only for the rapacious and those who are stronger and more unscrupulous than the rank and file of the people.

If we neglect these troths, our whole society suffers.

This is readily apparent in the case of some of the evils that continually confront us. For example, when organized crime and vice run loose and are accepted and patronized by the people, they threaten our free institutions and debase our national life. These evils are clearly moral issues and our religious beliefs command us to fight against them.

It is not so readily apparent that moral issues are involved in some of the other evils we have been fighting against in this country. But it is nevertheless true that the evils of the sweatshop and the slum, the evils of needless disease and poverty, and the evils of social injustice are, at the bottom, moral issues. Such conditions arise because men have neglected the moral law. They arise because men do not actually live up to the religious principles they profess to believe in.

When we move to correct these evils, through our personal conduct, through community action, or through the Government, we are responding to the divine command-to the Golden Rule—which requires us to do unto others as we would be done by.

Of course, this is a struggle that is never finally won. There are many injustices in our country that need correction today, and need them badly. We must continue to weigh our national life in the scales of justice, and keep on striving to improve it.

In the world at large, as well as in our domestic affairs, we must apply moral standards to our national conduct. At the present time our Nation is engaged in a great effort to maintain justice and peace in the world. An essential feature of this effort is our program to build up the defenses of our country.

There has never been a greater cause. There has never been a cause which had a stronger moral claim on all of us.

We are defending the religious principles upon which our Nation and our whole way of life are founded. We are defending the right to worship God—each as he sees fit according to his own conscience. We are defending the right to follow the precepts and the example which God has set for us. We are defending the right of people to gather together, all across our land, in churches such as this one.

For the danger that threatens us in the world today is utterly and totally opposed to all these things. The international Communist movement is based on a fierce and terrible fanaticism. It denies the existence of God and, wherever it can, it stamps out the worship of God.

Our religious faith gives us the answer to the false beliefs of communism. Our faith shows us the way to create a society where man can find his greatest happiness under God. Surely, we can follow that faith with the same devotion and determination the Communists give to their godless creed.

That is what we must do. Our religion must live in our hearts, not as a set of dull rules learned by rote, but as a burning faith. Only such a faith—only a living allegiance to such a faith—can carry this country through the trials which are ahead of it.

This is a matter that comes home to every one of us. We have many different jobs to do and different parts to play in our country’s defense of its freedom and its beliefs.

If each of us, wherever he may be—in a factory or a mine, on a farm or in an office, or in the home—if each of us does his best to help, we need have no fear of the outcome.

We should continue to ask ourselves whether we are responding to this cause with the moral conviction and the faith which it demands.

Every day our newspapers tell us about the fighting in Korea. Our men there are making heroic sacrifices. They are fighting and suffering in an effort to prevent the tide of aggression from sweeping across the world. They are fighting to prevent the much greater sacrifice and suffering which all of us would endure if another world war comes.

Although we read about these sacrifices in our newspapers every day, we have a tendency to think of the defense effort only in selfish terms—in terms of avoiding personal inconvenience or making some personal gain. Our young men are offering their lives for us in the hills of Korea—and yet too many of us are chiefly concerned over whether or not we can buy a television set next week, or make the profit we expect to make this year, or how we can turn the situation to our own selfish advantage.

This is a failure to understand the moral principles upon which our Nation is founded. This is a faltering in our allegiance to the moral faith we have inherited from our fathers.

If we truly believe in God, we ought to ask ourselves what He may be thinking of our present attitude and our present conduct. Considering all the advantages that God has given us as a nation and all the mercies that He has shown to us from our very beginnings, we ought to ask ourselves whether we today are worthy of all that He has done for us. We ought to ask ourselves whether we, as a people, are doing our part; whether we are carrying out our moral obligations.

I do not think that anyone can study the history of this Nation of ours—study it deeply and earnestly—without becoming convinced that divine providence has played a great part in it. I have the feeling that God has created us and brought us to our present position of power and strength for some great purpose. And up to now we have been shirking it. Now we are assuming it, and now we must carry it through.

It is not given to us to know fully what that purpose is. But I think we may be sure. of one thing. That is, that our country is intended to do all it can, in cooperation with other nations, to help create peace and preserve [p.213] peace in this world. It is given to us to defend the spiritual values—the moral code—against the vast forces of evil that seek to destroy them.

This is a hard task. It is not one that we have asked for. At times, we would like to lay it down. And, as we go on with it, we shall see that it is full of uncertainties and sacrifices.

But we need not be afraid, if we have faith.

There is a lesson for us in the passage from the Bible which has just been read here. That part of the Book of Ezra describes the rebuilding of the temple in Jerusalem after the long captivity in Babylon. You remember how the writer describes the people shouting with a great shout when the foundation of the new temple was laid. And then the author goes on to tell us that some of those in the crowd, particularly the old men, did not shout. They wept when they saw the foundation stones set in place.

These were the men who remembered all the sacrifices—all the suffering of all the people—what their people had undergone during the captivity. They knew that these sacrifices had not been made in vain. They realized that, in spite of all their troubles, and in the face of overwhelming odds, their faith had prevailed. And so they were too deeply moved to shout; they wept for joy.

They gave thanks to God “because He is good, for his mercy endureth forever.”

If we hold true to our faith, as they did, I am sure that we will be able to offer, on some future day, the same heartfelt prayer of thanksgiving and joy. We too will be able to give God the glory for the victory of freedom and justice and peace for which we are striving today.

We, too, shall say: “He is good, for His mercy endureth forever.”

[After concluding his address the President presented to the church the silver trowel he had used in laying the cornerstone…]

Source: Public Papers of the Presidents, Truman, 1951, pgs. 210-213.

They Were Believers is researched, compiled, edited and formatted for the Internet (with occasional commentary and explanatory notes) by Steve Farrell, Founder and Editor-In-Chief of Self-Educated American.

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