Thanks to the technology of the day, I can still visit occasionally with Marshall Matt Dillon, Kitty, Doc Adams and the other ghosts of America’s past still haunting the streets of Dodge City on the longest running drama series (tied with the original “Law and Order” for that distinction) in the history of American TV. An episode of the series came to mind the other day as I pondered the plight of Christian citizens in the present United States. Faced with competition from someone claiming to be a medical doctor but whom he strongly believes to be a dangerous fraud, Doc Adams appears to quit his practice. His suspicions prove correct when a young boy nearly dies on account of the quack’s phony regimen. True to character, Doc steps in to save the day.
At the time and place depicted in “Gunsmoke” no reliable credentialing process for medical doctors extended to the frontier towns of the old West. People had to rely on their common sense, and of course their experience of the performance and character of the people they encountered to be trained physicians. Even when the claim was true, what we call modern medicine was, on the whole, still establishing its credentials in many parts of the world.
Of course, even before the advent of modern empirical science, medical professionals in the ancient world faced the same challenge. Though the connection is long since lost to mind, the word “professional” refers to the way in which they met this challenge. Those truly learned in the medical arts adopted a way of life dedicated to healing. In ancient Greece, for example, they lived according to an oath sworn to the divine Asclepius, a legendary healer so renowned that he was taken to exemplify the mind and way of life, i.e., the character, conferred by true knowledge of the healing art.
In our day we have become so mesmerized by the assertion that “science” is just a matter of objective facts, systematically observed and understood, that we tend to forget that the practice of medicine is not just a matter of facts, but of the reliable character required to apply appropriate understanding of the facts in a way that serves the good of the patient, not the profit or other extraneous advantage of the healer.
Knowledge is power. Power can be a source of enormous profit, giving rise to greater power. Since the powerful knowledge that heals also teaches ways to subdue or kill, that knowledge is always accompanied by the temptation to abuse it. Today the word “professional” has been corrupted until it refers mainly to someone who takes money in exchange for a service. But at its root the word originally referred to those who professed to trust, and follow in the footsteps of the divine healer; those who swore to act faithfully according to that profession of their faith in his way, according to the rule set by his example.
The profession gained credibility as the good character of those who swore to uphold it was established among the people in need of their help. People came to trust in the bond their oath represented. In the time and place depicted in “Gunsmoke” the character portrayed in Doc Adams would have sworn an oath modeled on the oath of those ancient healers. He was therefore portrayed as someone whose professional character had nothing to do with the fact that he was paid for his services, and everything to do with the fact that he sought to use such knowledge as he had to do good, and never harm, to those he served, even when he himself suffered by doing so.
Why would I think of this in the context of the current crisis of America’s political life? I think of it because being a citizen of the United States involves a presumed allegiance that is not unlike the loyalty medical professionals once swore to the character upheld as the ideal of their profession. Though natural born citizens never formally take such an oath, the fact that people are required to take it as the culmination of the naturalization process shows that it is an essential aspect of U.S. citizenship. The oath taker swears to “support and defend the Constitution and laws of the United States of America against all enemies, foreign and domestic” and to “bear true faith and allegiance to the same.”
The pledge of allegiance is, of course, not unfamiliar to some portion of the present citizen body of the United States. When I was coming along we daily pledged allegiance “to the flag of the United States of America, and to the republic for which it stands, one nation under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.” This pledge reflected the goals of the U.S. Constitution, instituted, among other things, to form a more perfect union, establish justice and secure the blessing of liberty. Of course the pledge gives rise to questions about the meaning of union, justice and liberty — questions that must be continually raised and answered conscientiously if we intend to remain a republic — or indeed, a self-governing nation in any meaningful sense.
Insofar as our citizenship includes the assumption of some such allegiance, it puts us in the position of the professionals whose oath reflected their commitment to observe and follow the requirements of a character that represents the trustworthy fulfillment of that commitment. But where is the model of that good faith? What are the precepts we are to follow as true citizens of the United States?
It is a sign of the times, with respect to the fate of our self-government, that this question is no longer addressed in our politics, though it is the sphere of actions that are supposed to represent our lives as citizens. When President John F. Kennedy challenged Americans to “Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country?” he posed that question boldly. But after years in the fever swamps of victimhood, selfish interest and self-indulgence so-called “candidates” are in fact candid about nothing except their shameless promises to do everything for us, and require nothing in return except that we utterly submit to their power.
Yet in the first words spoken on behalf of the citizens of the United States, premises were set forth for our life as citizens as clear as those the legendary example of Asclepius once provided to the ancient profession of healers. Those words spoke of laws ordained by God for our nature. They spoke of rights, involving actions undertaken on the authority of our obedience to those laws. They spoke of the powers of government, derived from our consent to undertake those actions, powers intended first and foremost to make the world safe for the rights (inclinations to act rightly) reflected in that undertaking.
Some people assert that those first words involve “negative rights,” an ill-conceived notion that involves a palpable absurdity. But contrary to this assertion, (be it lying or self-deceit) those words speak plainly of our commitment to do what is right for ourselves and all humanity, on terms laid down by the Creator as He endows us with the capacity for life, in the Spirit that frees us from subjection in nature so that we may freely choose to be the subjects of a nature He intends especially for us alone. This is the right of liberty. It entails, as all rights do, the responsibility to act on God’s perspective, wherein He refuses to lose sight of the whole even as He cares for every single one.
In this respect, the model for our profession as citizens is not some legendary Citizen, raised by human trust to divine status. Our model is God Himself, the One who raises us to human status by informing us — according to the knowledge only He possesses, of what it means to be in His own image and likeness. But if this is indeed the premise of our citizen vocation, then it must be as citizens of the kingdom of God that we answer the call to be citizens of the United States. In my WND column later this week, I’ll ponder how our failure to meet this requirement contributes to what may be the imminent death of the republic in which citizenship makes us members of the sovereign’s body, entitled by “the laws of nature and of nature’s God” to govern ourselves and our country.