The Conscience of a Nation

by Derrick G. Jeter

To be the conscience of a nation or a powerful institution is to invite the scorn of some and the wrath of others. But to lovers of truth the clarion call of a national conscience is reason for praise.


Martin Luther was the conscience of the Catholic Church at the beginning of the Reformation, and the church divines bristled under his pen-pricks. Commanded to recant his writings and teachings against the church or face excommunication, Luther was called to appear before a committee at the Diet of Worms—committee members would just as soon as had a diet of worms than to hear what Luther had to say to them. Standing in front of these sour looking men, Luther declared,


I cannot submit my faith either to the pope or to the council, because it is as clear as noonday that they have fallen into error and even into glaring inconsistency with themselves. If, then, I am not convinced by proof from Holy Scripture, or by cogent reasons, if I am not satisfied by the very text I have cited, and if my judgment is not in this way brought into subjection to God’s word, I neither can nor will retract anything; for it cannot be right for a Christian to speak against his conscience. Here I stand; I cannot do otherwise. God help me. Amen.1


Almost 450 years later, Martin Luther’s namesake and fellow minister became the conscience of 1960s America. Speaking, in what would be his last Sunday morning sermon, at the National Cathedral in Washington, D. C., Martin Luther King Jr. intoned:


On some positions, cowardice asks the question, is it expedient? And then expedience comes along and asks the question—is it politic?


Vanity asks the question—is it popular? Conscience asks the question—is it right?


There comes a time when one must take the position that it is neither safe nor politic nor popular, but he must do it because conscience tells him it is right.2


Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, like his fellow followers of Christ, was the conscience of his nation—first in the old Soviet Union, where he spent many years in Stalin’s brutal Gulags, and then in the new Russian Federation. Writing in his literary biography, The Oak and the Calf, Solzhenitsyn said, “The most terrible danger of all is that you may do violence to your conscience, sully your honor. No threat of physical destruction can compare with it.”3


Who is the conscience of America today?


As America continues its precipitous slide further down the gapping abyss of political and economic socialism, and cultural despotism the light of liberty and moral restraint becomes a fading, distant memory. If the Lord tarries to carry His children away, will the country we leave our children and grandchildren be a darkened shadow of the republic, once glorious? What was spoken by the Reverend Amos Adams more than 240 years ago is just as relevant today: “Our liberties, both civil and sacred, are truly our own; they are what our fathers dearly brought, they descend to us as a patrimony purchased at their expense.”4 Will our children know what it is like to live free? Will they remember the price that was paid for liberty of conscience, or will that memory be expunged in servitude to the state?


Those who serve as the conscience of a nation do not have to possess political power; they may have no political, economic, or cultural authority, but they must have moral authority. They must have moral clarity and the courage to speak truth to power. Who is that individual in America today?


At the close of his Nobel lecture, Solzhenitsyn spoke eloquently and urgently about defeating national lies:


The simple act of an ordinary brave man is not to participate in lies, not to support false actions! His rule: Let that come into the world, let it even reign supreme—only not through me. But it is within the power of writers and artists to do much more: to defeat the lie! . . .


This is why I believe, my friends, that we are capable of helping the world in its hour of crisis. We should not seek to justify our unwillingness by our lack of weapons, nor should we give ourselves up to a life of comfort. We must come out and join the battle! . . .


One word of truth shall outweigh the whole world.5


One word of truth shall outweigh the whole world. O God, that You would raise up a Solzhenitsyn in these days to speak such truth!


1. Martin Luther, quoted in William Safire, ed., Lend Me Your Ears: Great Speeches in History (New York: W. W. Norton, 1992), 304–5.

2. Martin Luther King Jr., “Remaining Awake through a Great Revolution,” March 31, 1968, in James M. Washington, ed., A Testament of Hope: The Essential Writings and Speeches of Martin Luther King, Jr. (San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1991), 276–77.

3. Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, The Oak and the Calf: A Memoir (New York: Harper and Row, 1975), 211.

4. Amos Adams, quoted in Ira Stoll, Samuel Adams: A Life (New York: Free Press, 2008), 73.

5. Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, “Nobel Lecture,” in eds., Edward E. Ericson, Jr. and Daniel J. Mahoney, The Solzhenitsyn Reader: New and Essential Writings, 1947–2005 (Wilmington, Del.: ISI Books, 2007), 526.