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1965 Inaugural Sermon



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THE SPIRITUAL DIMENSIONS OF LEADERSHIP



On that day, more than a year ago, when the torch of leadership was transferred, I happened to be with a longtime friend of President Johnson's, and we went immediately to a quiet place to ask God to sustain him for the immense responsibilities which were thrust so suddenly upon him. That afternoon, when he was placing his hand on the Bible and being sworn in to the high office of President of the United States, we read together a passage of Holy Scripture. It was the prayer of King Solomon upon his ascension to the throne of Israel after the death of his father, King David. Today, at high noon, as he takes that oath again and becomes President in his own right, I can still think of no finer prayer to begin with than that one.

(2 Chronicles 1:7-12) "In that night did God appear to Solomon, and said unto him, ask what I shall give thee.”

And King Solomon prayed, "Give me now wisdom and knowledge, that I may come in and go out before this people."

"And God said to Solomon, Because this was in thine heart, and thou hast not asked riches, wealth, or honor, nor the life of thine enemies...but hast asked wisdom and knowledge for thyself, that thou mayest judge my people, over whom I have made thee king:

"Wisdom and knowledge is granted unto thee; and I will give thee riches, and wealth, and honor, such as none of the kings have had that have been before thee."

Last February President Johnson said, "No man can live where I live now, nor work at the desk where I work now, without needing and without seeking the strength and support of earnest and frequent prayer." Humbled by the magnitude of the responsibilities of a high office, a man begins to probe the erratic swirl of events for a prophetic understanding of history; and when he is a spiritually sensitive man he will feel as Lincoln did, that he is a "humble instrument in the hands of Almighty God."

During the next four years, many of you here today will have to make decisions of State, perhaps greater than those of any of your predecessors. You will hold in your hands the destiny not only of America, but of the world. You will lead the richest and the most powerful nation the world has ever known. It is a nation which has been abundantly endowed with material blessings, but it is also a nation in danger of losing its moral moorings and its spiritual perspective. Christ, in whom are hid all the treasures of wisdom, once said, "What shall it profit a man if he gain the whole world, and lose his own soul" (Mark 8:36). This applies to nations as well as to individuals, for a nation that loses its spiritual courage will grow old before its time. Even if we gain all our material and social objectives, and lose our souls, it would be disastrous. Winston Churchill once said, "Man's destiny is not measured in material computations."

There is a spiritual dimension to leadership which this administration has already recognized. Theodore Roosevelt once said, "The White House is a bully pulpit." So it is! From this city you are already leading the nation to its greatest moral and spiritual heights. Jesus Christ said, "Unto whom much is given, of him shall much be required." Those who have the greatest power always need the greatest guidance.

No government rules except by the will of God. You are leaders, not only as a result of the greatest mandate the American people have ever given, but there is a mandate higher than the ballot box. You have responsibilities not only to all the people of America and to the peoples of the world, but you have also a great responsibility to the God of our fathers.

Even to the most casual observer, it is apparent that there is a growing spiritual vacuum in our nation. Our wealth and our prosperity are in danger of making us complacent and careless in the matters of the spirit. Jesus said, "Man shall not live by bread alone." Many nations have tried it, and failed. Germany declared a neutrality in matters of religion during the thirties. That neutrality created a spiritual vacuum, and the first robust philosophy to come along filled that vacuum with a vengeance. And that, in my judgment, is how we got Nazism, and the hell of World War II. The Bible says, "Where there is no vision, the people perish."

In foreign affairs, we are faced with overwhelming problems, from Southeast Asia to the Congo. In domestic affairs, we are faced with an alarming crime rate, a moral crisis, and many individual psychological problems which fill our hospitals. These problems will become more intense and more demanding during the next four years.

There seems to be no permanent solution to our problems. We try this scheme and that, but we find that each one is only a stop-gap measure. Could it be that we have failed to diagnose properly the ills of the world? Could General MacArthur have been right when he said, 20 years ago, "The problem, basically, is theological . . . there must be a revival of the spirits if we are to save the flesh."

I know the leaders of this administration, especially the President and Vice-President, well enough to know that they believe he was right -- that our problems are basically spiritual and that they require a spiritual solution. That spiritual solution was outlined by God to King Solomon long ago, when he said,

"If my people, which are called by my name, shall humble themselves, and pray, and seek my face, and turn from their wicked ways; then will I hear from heaven, and will forgive their sin, and will heal their land." (2 Chronicles 7:14)

To approach the problems of the next four years in a spirit of prayer and humble dependence upon God would bring a freshness of vision and purpose that could capture the imagination of the world.

During the next four years, there will be moments of discouragement, despondency, and even disillusionment. There may come times when some of you will feel like Woodrow Wilson did, when the Senate voted against the ratification of Wilson's proposal for the League of Nations. The news was telephoned to the White House. "I feel like going to bed and staying there," Wilson said. He could not sleep that night, and he turned to Dr. Grayson about three o'clock in the morning, and said, "Doctor, the devil is a busy man."

Later in the morning, he had Grayson read St. Paul's consoling words from Second Corinthians, "We are troubled on every side, yet not distressed; we are perplexed, but not forsaken; cast down, but not destroyed." Turning to Grayson, President Wilson said, "Doctor, if I were not a Christian, I think I should go mad, but my faith in God holds me to the belief that He is, in some way, working out His own plans, in spite of human mistakes."

Centuries ago Moses stood before the people of Israel and said, "When thou art in tribulation, and all these things are come upon thee . . . if thou turn to the Lord, thy God, and shall be obedient unto his voice . . . He will not forsake thee . . . nor forget the covenants of thy father, which He sware unto them."

In the midst of the bloody Civil War, Abraham Lincoln read his Bible regularly. He memorized passages from its pages. He used the Word of God to help him make decisions and solve problems. In matters of right and wrong, the God of the Bible was Lincoln's final court of appeals. The overwhelming problems of his day drove him to the Scriptures and to his knees in prayer. Out of this humble dependence on God came the preservation of the Union.

History throbs with crisis, but the Gospel is that God is for man, and that, in the greatest crisis this world has ever known -- when Jesus Christ went to the cross -- God transformed that tragedy into triumph and wrought redemption for those who trust in Him.

Mr. President, on the wall of your office at the White House, I have seen a framed yellowed letter. It was written to your Great-grandfather Baines more than 100 years ago, and it bears the bold -- almost defiant -- signature of Sam Houston.

Your great-grandfather led General Sam Houston to a saving knowledge of Jesus Christ. This conversion transformed that troubled, rough hero of San Jacinto into a man of peace, happiness, and purpose. As Marquis James put it in his book, The Raven:

"The long quest for spiritual repose ended when Houston knelt before the altar and asked to be received into the Church, and on the 19th of November, 1858, the convert waded into the chilly waters of Rocky Creek, and was baptized. A church publication at that time said, 'The announcement of General Houston's conversion has excited wonder and surprise of many who have supposed that he was past praying for."'

At the time, somebody said to Sam Houston, "Well, General, I hear all your sins were washed away." "I hope so," Sam Houston replied, "but if they were all washed away, the Lord help the fish down below."

On the day Sam Houston was baptized, he offered to pay half the minister's salary in the church. When someone asked him about it, he said, "My pocket book was baptized, too."

This newness of spiritual life that the President's Great-grandfather Baines helped introduce to General Sam Houston is the same transforming faith we need in our nation today if we are to meet successfully our rendezvous with destiny. That letter, written by a heroic Texan, to the great-grandfather of our President, is heartening evidence of a sense of moral direction. The letter itself is important, but the fact that the President chose to hang it in his office, is also important. It is a shining symbol that from the very apex of government, there is a spiritual emphasis in our national affairs.

Symbolically, it says that Lyndon Baines Johnson has respect for the old faith that has guided his family, his state, and his nation, through generations.

On this solemn occasion, as a great nation goes forward under its newly chosen leaders, I find great comfort for the future, symbolized by a yellowed scrap of paper on a White House wall.


(Text from a transcript of the sermon in Collection 345, Box 43, Folder 10)
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Wheaton College 2005