VISION & VALUES: Goodness and Greatness

EDITOR’S NOTE: U.S. Senator Rick Santorum delivered this commencement address to the Grove City College graduating Class of 1998.

Thank you very much, Dr. Moore, for asking me to be here. I consider it a true honor to come and talk to your graduates and to their families. I have a tremendous respect for Grove City College – for your independence, your commitment to principle, and your understanding of those core convictions which are so necessary for us in life. I also want to congratulate the graduates. I sat out there where you are eleven years ago when I graduated from law school.

Three years ago when I delivered my first commencement speech, I was serving in the Senate with Senator Alan Simpson, who was recognized as a good speaker and had addressed many commencements. When I asked him what advice he could offer he said: “Keep it short; there’s not one person in the room who came to hear you.” As you may know from my reputation, I don’t usually listen to what senior members of the Senate have to say. So I asked one of the more junior senators, Senator Dan Coats from Indiana, a great man who is unfortunately retiring this year, the same question. He looked at me and said: “Tell them what is important.” I thought, “What a heavy burden to tell folks who now know everything, what is important.”

Goodness and Happiness

In the past, in these kinds of speeches, I have talked about what is important only from the point of view of an individual. Today, I’m going to broaden the topic, because I think there is an area that I have neglected in the past. I neglected to discuss what is important for our society and our country, not just what is important to you personally. The best way to determine what values are important to our society is to go to a cultural barometer – in this case, mothers. Mothers are probably as good a barometer of what is important to our society as any group of people in this country. A few years ago a survey was taken of Japanese and American mothers. They were asked the question: “What do you want your children to be when they grow up?” The Japanese mothers said that they wanted their children to be successful. The overwhelming majority of American mothers said they didn’t care what their children were as long as they were happy. I don’t believe they really meant that they only wanted their children to be “happy” – at least I hope they didn’t believe that. I can’t imagine any of you mothers dropping off your child here as a freshman and, before leaving, looking them in the eye and saying: “Now go and be the happiest student at Grove City College.” If any mothers did that, I am quite certain that they are not here today to witness their child’s graduation! Do we really want the focus of children’s lives, our lives, to be the pursuit of pleasure, of happiness? I grew up in an Italian?American household, and I can tell you my Italian father did not care if I was happy. What my mom and dad always said was: “Now Rick, you be good.” I knew what good meant. It meant that there was a moral code that was based on universal truth. I’m afraid that, as a culture, we don’t believe this anymore.

What has happened to the moms and dads who want their children to be good? I believe they are casualties of the cultural war in this country. We live now in a country that believes we should be non?judgmental to the point that we won’t even fight for the souls of our own children. In my day, parents who fought for the souls of their children were called strict parents; now they are called right-wing radicals. Behavior that was once an affront to the basic moral code, a code grounded in truth, is now publicly accepted. Those who want to curb such behavior, or question such behavior, are dismissed as intolerant.

We live in a pleasure-driven culture. We are constantly told to do what feels right, to follow our hearts. The tenets of the popular culture are reinforced over and over again. We have gotten away from the painful, difficult decisions of discerning what is right, and then acting on them. That is not to say that people don’t believe in right and wrong. If you took a survey and asked individuals: “Do you believe there is right and wrong,” very few people would say, “no, I don’t believe there is a right and a wrong.” Of course they would say there is a right and a wrong. The problem is they make the truth relative, and they behave as if there is no absolute right and wrong. They don’t act out their stated beliefs; they don’t live them out in their own lives and, more important, they don’t live them out with respect to other people’s lives, including their own children. What are the consequences of a culture without truth? Without a shared belief system that is held and enforced, a culture disintegrates into moral chaos. This is what is happening in America today.

Lincoln to Clinton
This is not a new problem to America. We need only go back to the first half of the 19th century to see another period of time in which we suffered over the lack of a public consensus on right and wrong. Many accepted moral ambiguity because it didn’t affect them. And not only did we reject a compelling, binding, transcendent moral code, we instituted this relativism in our laws. The issue was slavery. Those who opposed slavery were then called radicals. Abraham Lincoln was a radical; he believed in truth. He believed in right and wrong. Fortunately for this country enough people, a bare majority, shared his vision and his values and were willing to act publicly on it. They were willing to fight a war, suffer and die to maintain truth, to fight for truth. Abraham Lincoln was, in a very real sense, a reflection of his time – a man willing to confront the consequences of moral relativism.

You know what I’m going to say next. Look at the reflection of our time today – President Clinton. What does the mirror tell us? So many people say he is a poor role model, but they have it wrong. He is a reflection of each and every one of us in some way. He is a reflection, certainly, of the consensus within America: the view that, “as long as it doesn’t affect me, you can do what you want … as long as it doesn’t touch my life, who am I to judge?”

Let me elaborate on this reflection. The United States Supreme Court in 1992 authored a decision, Planned Parenthood v. Casey, stating: “Our obligation is to define the liberty of all, not to mandate our own moral code.” They went on to define liberty: “At the heart of liberty is the right to define one’s own concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe, of the mystery of life.” Our Supreme Court, not surprisingly, posited this in an abortion case ruling, when the Court was reviewing the Roe v. Wade decision. By allowing each person to define when life begins, the Court has acquiesced in the killing of thirty million children. Its response reflects society’s predominant world view: “Who are we to judge this as wrong; who are we to tell you what’s right and wrong?”

To paraphrase Joseph Stalin: one death is a tragedy; thirty million dead children are just a statistic. What are the other statistics that have resulted from a moral code that has become relative? Half of all marriages end in divorce and a third of all children are born out of wedlock. Drug abuse is at an all-time high. Crime is rampant. And these statistics are for the general population. Now look at the poor: more than half of their marriages end in divorce; two-thirds of their children are born out of wedlock. They suffer far more crime, more drug abuse, hopelessness, and despair. You see, the poor always pay the price. They pay the price for the elites’ desire to pursue happiness without consequence, because they don’t have a rich daddy to buy them out of their problems. And so we further trap them because of our desire to live “free” of moral restraints.

Seeking the Truth
So what’s the answer? I am going to return to the best barometer – my mom – to a quote she used to cite: “All that is necessary for evil to triumph is for good men to do nothing.” I’m asking you today to be good men and women, and to do something, each in your own lives to live out truth. I’m not asking you to scale the highest peaks, to overcome our cultural crises by yourselves. I’m asking you to be good: to seek goodness and to seek truth and to live your lives according to that code. So, where do you seek truth? First and foremost, from the Truth-Giver – from God. Seek truth from God, seek it in His Word, seek it in your faith community, seek it in prayer. Even more important than this, understand that you cannot accomplish whatever your dreams are by yourself, within your own ability. Your dreams will be accomplished only when you accept God’s Word, only when you get close enough to God, to let him carry the load. Let me suggest some further ways to seek the truth.

First, pray. I belong both to a Bible study and prayer group in the United States Senate. Yes, such things exist even there. I can tell you, when I first joined the Bible study in the United States Senate, there were only four regular members. Now there are fourteen who regularly attend. It is a basic understanding of ours that as powerful as some will paint us to be, we are powerless without God, and so to rely upon Him should be at the core of what we, and you, should do.

Second, seek truth within your family. One of the most important things that I’ve learned, which I didn’t know when I went into my marriage and started raising children, is to make faith the central part of family life. Not an adjunct to it, not an important part, but central to family life. I was in Meadville, Pennsylvania, the other day, three days after the shooting of students at Edinboro. I appeared on a talk show and someone called in and said: “You know, Senator, what’s wrong? Everything went downhill when they took prayer out of school.” I replied, “I disagree with you. We started to go downhill when parents took prayer out of families.” Pray together – pray with your children, pray with your spouse. I talk to a lot of men and women in my position, and many of them find it very difficult to pray with their spouse. Nevertheless, doing so is central to the vitality of your marriage and to your own life.

I’ve recently arrived at a conclusion I’ll share with you about my role as a father. I always thought my responsibility as a parent was to raise good kids, to make sure they had a good education and to ensure that they were safe. Having lost a child, I can tell you that it is now my principal purpose to do all I can to make certain that my children know God, the Truth-Giver, and that they will be with Him in Heaven some day.

Let me offer three other suggestions to strengthen the family. First, it’s important to ask God to help your family develop a good relationship. Second, it is important to communicate to your children, your spouse and your parents that you love them. Don’t let a day go by without telling someone close to you that you love them and sharing with them what is going on in your life. Third, spend time. I must admit I come to this conclusion not from having studied it in books. I’ve learned the importance of spending time with my children and my wife the hard way. Running for office and being a United States Senator are very time-consuming exercises. It hit home a year ago when my wife Karen and I were cleaning out my son Daniel’s drawers, who was about a year and a half old at the time. We were putting in hand?me?downs from our older son, Johnny. My wife handed me a pair of pajamas, a well-worn pair of pajamas, and she smiled and said, “Rick, don’t you remember these pajamas? Johnny wore these pajamas to bed every night.” Johnny was one and a half at the time of my Senate race in 1994. I looked at her and said, “I don’t remember ever seeing those pajamas.” I decided right then and there that the concept of “quality time” rather than quantity of time is a bunch of boloney. It is quantity time which counts. Your children will know what you value, what you think is important, by how you spend your time. They will know when they are your priority, and when they are not. Quality time, yes; quantity time, absolutely! It is when we spend time with our children that they can then see truth lived out.

Finally, truth is transmitted through community. This is where all the talk of truth, goodness, right and wrong comes into play. Yes, come to terms with the Truth-Giver and build strong families which are the foundation of our country. But take those attributes, that goodness, and live it out, in and through your community. Share your goodness with others. Volunteer, participate in your church, participate in the non?profit organizations which reach people and change lives. You may not expect it, but the lives which will most change are yours, not the people you intended to serve. I haven’t talked to one volunteer who has gone out and served those in need who didn’t receive more out of the process than anyone else.

These institutions are the very ones which help forge and promote consensus on public morality. Let being a “truth-liver” enrich your life and in so sharing your goodness, you will enrich America. Alexis DeToqueville said back in the 1830s when he visited America: “America is great because it is good, but when it ceases to be good it will no longer be great.” Go out and save America, make America great … be good. God bless you.