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One possible advantage of all this frenzied attention to the
presidential election is that it reminded us, in a backward way, of the
difference between elections and our national life. After a month of
obsession with politics, we began to notice that it is not normal to be
obsessed with politics. Now that George W. Bush is inviting us to look
“beyond politics” to … prescription drugs, it may be a good time to
think about what really are the issues that lie beyond the frequently
ephemeral disputes of political contest.

The president-elect told us that Republicans and Democrats both want
the best for America. Let’s take the long view and ask what will be the
most important factor for the well being of America over the next
century.

Of course, it will be hard to predict what the problems of the 21st
century are going to be. Those who attempted to foresee the problems of
the 20th century didn’t do very well and it’s not clear that we’re much
wiser today. It is best not to seek too much precision but to focus on
the big picture. We should ask in broad terms what will likely be the
most important challenges we face in the decades to come.

Is the glass half empty, or is it half full? Are we on the threshold
of enormous possibilities that will raise human beings to a golden
upland of achievement, or do we face the horrors of a 21st century
steeped in violence and chaos? If human experience is any indication,
we will probably end up muddling along somewhere in the middle, with
some pretty horrible things and also some pretty great things. That
certainly has been the case in the 20th century.

We should begin by acknowledging that we enter the 21st century in a
time of material prosperity. Whatever may happen over the next six
months, we are very likely still in the midst of a long period of
economic flourishing. A durable prosperity will bring with it some
predictable challenges and it is these to which I think we should be
directing our attention now. But first, what are some of the reasons to
be confident that our prosperity will be durable?

The chief reason that our economic future is bright is that, much
more than ever before, it is understood that prosperity is the fruit of
the work and creativity of the people — not of government. It will be
hard for government to put this genie back in the bottle.

Our prosperity is also the fruit of the application of much new
knowledge achieved through scientific means. The advance of science has
put within our reach great powers — for good and ill — which will open
new horizons of economic productivity and creativity. The combination
of scientific advance and economic liberty may well enable a systematic
reduction of poverty as reliable as the course of technological progress
itself. Perhaps we shall perform in the economic realm what we have
done in the physical realm. Intelligently connected, the electron is
suddenly enormously valuable to everyone. The advent of the Internet,
similarly, can liberate the full potential of each individual to provide
goods and services — not just in the homely precincts of their
community but suddenly to the entire world in cascades of mutual
benefit.

For much of human history, disease has been joined to poverty as the
dual tyrant of human life — and here as well, we are on the verge of
advances so profound as to mark a genuinely new era in human existence.
Researches into human biology and related areas raise the probability
that we will become effective masters of much of the function and
make-up of our own bodies. We may very well be at the threshold of an
era of medical progress so amazing that we will dare to speak of
abolishing disease and the disabilities of old age.

These are wonderful prospects and reasons that we should not be
preoccupied with gloom as we contemplate the coming century.

But there is another side to the accumulation of powerful human
knowledge. This other side was frequently quite obvious during the 20th
century, visible in such ominous and deadly forms as the horrific
efficiency of armaments and the shadow that nuclear weapons cast over
the survival of the world. In the days to come, the dangers presented
by our new knowledge may be subtler, but only because our knowledge is
itself subtler. It was hard not to notice the danger presented by the
power to blow up entire nations. In this century, we will face the
temptation to ignore the danger of the power that we are garnering to
transform — distort? — our own nature. Should we not, for example,
tremble at the prospect of possessing the power to alter our very
physical constitution, which is no longer lifted safely beyond the reach
of human power by the immutable decisions of nature?

We are opening the door to powers that were unimagined in the past:
over the human spirit, over the human emotions, over the human mind and
psychology — powers that would allow us to create, not only in the
world, but in ourselves, monstrosities of human oppression. The power
to design new kinds of human life may well introduce into our midst new
bases for bigotry and prejudice that are difficult even to contemplate.

What should worry us most is not a catalog of individual problems we
may face. With knowledge comes responsibility — or, at any rate, the
need for responsibility. The greatest challenge of the era to come is
the fact that our knowledge will continue to increase, but the moral
wisdom and responsibility required in order to handle that knowledge
safely may not increase apace. Without a corresponding increase in such
wisdom, our knowledge will produce effects whose destructive power is as
unimaginable to us now as the scientific miracles of today were to our
ancestors. The provision of a stock of moral wisdom and responsibility
sufficient to ensure the right use of our knowledge is the great
challenge of the era before us.

We will continue, no doubt, to reap the fruits of our science and to
apply those fruits in ways that offer us greater power and greater
control over things that, in the past, seemed beyond the reach of human
individuals and human societies. Applying that kind of genius and
creativity will open up possibilities to continue to relieve human
suffering and spread greater material abundance. These things we know
how to do. Do we know how — do we remember how — to ensure the right
use of those possibilities?

The evidence from the past few decades is not promising. As our
journey along the paths of scientific understanding and greater
practical knowledge has accelerated, it seems that there has been a
correlative undermining of our moral confidence. At times it has seemed
that the edifice of practical power we are building has cracked the
foundations of our belief in the principles that encourage our trust
that moral judgments are possible. It has often seemed that as the call
on our moral judgment grows greater, our confidence in the existence of
a moral universe grows ever weaker.

Our power will continue to grow and if our moral judgment continues
to weaken and sicken, even, perhaps, unto death, then our power will be
revealed as a power to build the very structures of hell on earth — a
possibility that only those utterly innocent of the history of the last
century will call exaggerated. Avoiding this fate lies beyond
“politics” in the usual, superficial meaning of that word. But the
prospect of losing any genuine American capacity for moral judgment –
of playing with fire once too often and burning the whole place down –
is the fundamental political threat of the coming century.

And there is an antidote to this danger. It is an old, even
old-fashioned remedy but one that still seems resilient despite all our
efforts to talk ourselves out of it. For some decades, we have suffered
from a combined attempt by “enlightened” voices in entertainment, the
media, government, our universities and many other privileged interests
to reject religion. They have been desperately trying in every possible
way to convince us that only the unsophisticated would retain any
confidence that religious faith is relevant to human existence. Yet, to
the discerning eye, it is clear that the sense of faith and due
dependence on Almighty God grows, it does not decrease, in the breast of
ordinary men and women in this country and around the world. This is
the antidote, written by the finger of God on our very hearts, enabling
us to know that as we become more godlike in our capacities, we may yet
become less godlike in our ability to understand the meaning and proper
use of those capacities.

It is humbling to realize that the only sure limitation on human
power is the confession of our moral insufficiency to wield that power
by ourselves. But the very humility that religious faith requires is a
sign that it really is the vaccination to the sickness we face. We need
to remember God — and we need political leaders who will remind us
about God — not chiefly because we will be faced with terrible problems
of hunger, nations collapsing in chaos, or any of the litany of
disasters that have threatened man through the ages. We stand on the
threshold of an era when the greatest temptation will be to take
overweening pride in our seeming achievements and to regard them with a
sense of self-sufficiency that releases us from the boundaries of
ordinary moral judgment. What could be more necessary than the humbling
and limiting acknowledgment that there is, in fact, a God, and we are
not Him? This essential element of religious faith will become ever
more crucial to our well being and, indeed, to the survival of humanity
in the course of the century to come.

Safety lies in the simple acknowledgment that, however great our
knowledge grows, it cannot not equal the knowledge of the One who
assigns to each thing its place. This is why the founders showed such
wisdom when they set before the people of this country a single premise
of our common life — that we are all of us created equal and endowed by
our Creator with certain unalienable rights. That means that whatever
powers we gain, and whatever powers we may claim upon this earth, we
stand in the face of a greater power. Earthly powers — even when they
appear most benevolent — must therefore acknowledge that they are not a
law unto themselves.

True political leadership for the 21st century will consist, most
fundamentally, in guiding the American people to understand that
self-government means the control of our desires out of respect for the
requirements of justice. Such respect, our founders knew, has no true
foundation but respect for the authority of God. The statesman who is
far seeing enough to understand that the great challenge of American
life is to ensure the right use of the almost supernatural power we are
systematically acquiring, will see, as well, that only the cultivation
of national piety — the fear of the Lord, which is the beginning of
wisdom — will save us from the awful arrogance of unbridled human will.

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