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MOVIES: The age of retro-judgment

KANSAS CITY, Kan. (BP) — We are currently faced with what could be called a new McCarthyistic era of giving no pardon for the trespasses of prominent figures and heroes of the past or present.

In some cases their character is assessed based on one deed or statement made decades ago. This makes it an uneasy time for anyone not in step with our time’s seemingly utopian vision of the new man.

Consider our nation’s founding fathers as an example. The 1972 film version of the musical “1776” contains a scene depicting the vote for independence. A single “nay” from any of the 13 colonies would have prevented liberation from England’s tyranny, so an objection from South Carolina’s Edward Rutledge to Thomas Jefferson’s demand for the undoing of slavery nearly ended the possibility of this new nation.

With much deliberation and angst on the part of Jefferson, John Adams and Ben Franklin, they removed a clause to prevent slavery from the Declaration of Independence. It tormented these men as is indicated by these lines from the film:

John Adams: “Mark me, Franklin … if we give in on this issue, posterity will never forgive us.”

Ben Franklin: “That’s probably true, but we won’t hear a thing, we’ll be long gone. Besides, what would posterity think we were? Demi-gods? We’re men, no more no less, trying to get a nation started against greater odds than a more generous God would have allowed. First things first, John. Independence; America. If we don’t secure that, what difference will the rest make?”

Surely Jefferson, Adams and Franklin weren’t completely satisfied with the outcome of their accomplishment. But would slavery have been abolished any sooner had they not given in to Rutledge’s threat? So how should we treat the memory of these men?

In 2003 I was in Washington, D.C., on a press junket for the movie “Gods and Generals.” My hotel was within walking distance of the Lincoln Memorial, so after the screening of the film, I went with another press member to see the statue. At 11:45 on a Saturday night, my friend remained below reading a placard while I ascended the steps and stood alone in front of Mr. Lincoln. Not another soul there. It was a moving moment as I questioned how anyone could stand before this marble masterpiece and not want to be a better person.

Was Abraham Lincoln a sinless man? Surely not. Yet many of his words and deeds would send a lasting light into the world.

Now, am I saying we should overlook any incriminating views of men simply because they had significant accomplishments? No.

Yet it’s wise to learn from their encouraging feats while being cautioned by their flaws. And I’ve learned that it’s a mistake to define a person’s character by one deed or misdeed. A man of conscience will seek to develop his character throughout life.

In this age when a non-PC act or statement can get you fired, pause should be taken before casting that first stone.

Those making moral assessments of our ancestors may one day themselves be judged for their acceptance of abortion and the legalization of recreational drugs and same-sex marriage. Ideas that are embraced by many in this generation may perhaps be recognized as harmful to society.

We have thousands of laws in our land, yet hatred and offenses abound, including the judging of others. This would suggest that in any civilization there must be a moral regulation to guide lawgivers and admonishers. Even good men will make unqualified judgments if not directed by the proper principle.

Where then can this moral code be found?

“The Lord confides in those who fear him, he makes his covenant known to them” (Psalms 25:14 NIV).

“And whenever you stand praying, forgive, if you have anything against anyone, so that your Father … may forgive you your trespasses” (Mark 11:25).

There’s your moral code. Sadly, however, most seeking to construct a new man or country aren’t looking to God for the tools He can graciously and supernaturally provide.

    About the Author

  • Phil Boatwright