After the Supreme Court demoralizing abortion decision, I searched my mental files for an Ebenezer of encouragement. I remembered that Justice Clarence Thomas was scheduled to give the 2016 Commencement Address at my alma mater, and I eagerly planned to return to hear his remarks. Although I was just two years old at the time of Justice Thomas’s nomination by President Bush in 1991, I grew up hearing my parents talk about his hard-fought confirmation hearings and appointment as victories in a spiritual war.
Sitting in the audience when Justice Thomas spoke this past May, I realized how much I needed his message after the bruising 2016 presidential primaries, the tragic loss of Justice Antonin Scalia, and a country that seemed so lacking in moral leadership. Thomas delivered a message that, in its truth and humility, was as salient for the graduates as for the nation: liberty is purchased with responsibility and sacrifice, and freedom comes with obligations to live as good citizens in small ways.
His address also provided a model for how Christians should respond to a world hastily discarding our principles and institutions. Justice Thomas recalled his grandfather’s teaching in the segregated South, “Being wronged by others did not justify reciprocal conduct. Right was right, and two wrongs did not make a right.”
The church in America has taken a wrongful beating lately. The important story of early 21st-century America could be summarized by Thomas’s simple reflection: “Things that were considered firm have long since lost their vitality, and much that seemed inconceivable is now firmly or universally established. Hallmarks of my youth, such as patriotism and religion, seem more like outliers, if not afterthoughts.” Indeed, the world today is far less hospitable to both biblical Christianity and the general civic virtues that attend them, both of which the loss reveals grave consequences for human flourishing.
But Thomas made clear at the outset that this would be a different sort of address from what graduates and parents might be accustomed to hearing at commencement: “I resist what seems to be the formulaic or standard fare at commencement exercises—a broad complaint about societal injustice and an exhortation to the young graduates to go out and solve the problem and change the world.” He added, “Having been a young graduate myself, I think it is hard enough to solve your own problems, which can sometimes seem to defy solution.”
This recognition of the limits of what a commencement speech can give its audience reflects inherently biblical understanding of human nature: we are fallible, often morally frail creatures, burdened with the effects of the fall. Appropriate to his venue, a liberal arts college with a focus on great books, Thomas evoked the same theme articulated by Leo Tolstoy: “Everyone thinks of changing the world, but no one thinks of changing himself.”
This lack of self-reflection explains part of why religion and patriotism have taken such a hit, and part of the path toward recovering freedom means recovering this concept. “Today, we rarely hear of our personal responsibilities in discussions of broad notions such as freedom or liberty,” Thomas said. “It is as though freedom and liberty exist wholly independent of anything we do, as if they are predestined.”
However, “in addressing your own obligations and responsibilities in the right way, you actually do an important part on behalf of liberty and free government,” Thomas said. It was the faithful discharge of such responsibilities by America’s founding fathers and each successive generation that has sustained free government—but often in small, personal sacrifices.
The small sacrifices that Thomas described preserved the great liberty of a nation because a “there is always a relationship between responsibilities and benefits.” He continued:
If you continue to run up charges on your credit card, at some point you reach your credit limit. If you continue to make withdrawals from your savings account, you eventually deplete your funds. Likewise, if we continue to consume the benefits of a free society without replenishing or nourishing that society, we will eventually deplete that as well. If we are content to let others do the work of replenishing and defending liberty while we consume the benefits, we will someday run out of other people’s willingness to sacrifice.
Knowledge of this relationship between liberty and sacrifice led Thomas’s family “to fight for the right to die on foreign soil to defend their country, even as their patriotic love went unreciprocated;” they returned from war “with dignity to face the indignity of discrimination.”
Thus when Thomas sought his grandfather’s advice about weathering the first waves of public criticism directed at him, his grandfather simply replied: “Son, you have to stand up for what you believe in.” Such simple advice, Thomas said, supplied the clarity he needed to see his duty and the courage he needed to fulfill it.
Similarly, Thomas’s advice can provide clarity for Christ-followers in a wayward time. He told Hillsdale’s graduates, “As you go through life, try to be a person whose actions teach others how to be better people and better citizens. Reach out to the shy person who is not so popular. Stand up for others when they’re being treated unfairly. Take the time to listen to the friend who’s having a difficult time.”
And finally, “Do not hide your faith and your beliefs under a bushel basket, especially in this world that seems to have gone mad with political correctness.”
Taken together, discharging these small duties can “become the unplanned syllabus for learning citizenship,” something that must be learned in order to become “a beacon of light for others to follow.”
We in the church are increasingly fighting our own battles in a spiritual war. We find our reliance on God and country to be increasingly shaky ground, with our core beliefs increasingly marginalized as strange at best and hateful at worst. We have ended another year of fighting at the Supreme Court and seem to have little to show for it. But we cannot despair. Instead, we would be wise to look to Justice Thomas’s life and listen to his words as we renew our efforts to become shining beacons of principle with the hope and prayer that others will follow.