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Thwarting an invisible threat: How to turn America’s crisis of confidence into a cause for confidence

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In this July 4, 2015, file photo, fireworks explode behind a United States flag during a Fourth of July celebration at State Fair Meadowlands in East Rutherford, N.J.

Associated Press

A biblical verse offers sound advice for each of us as we attempt to lean into the stiff wind of the prevailing pandemic, economic uncertainty, social upheaval and divisive political rhetoric. It simply says, “Cast not away therefore your confidence.” 

For several years now I have been attempting to help readers, listeners and citizens everywhere to live with confidence. The pessimists, cynics and pundits of doom and gloom want us to believe that all is lost, that America’s founding was fatally flawed, that we are not a nation of high ideals or principles and that the notion of a bright future is futile thinking. If you buy into the constant banter of the negativity, you will soon begin to wonder if it is really worth getting out of bed in the morning.  

There are far too many in this country who have lost confidence in themselves, in the inherent goodness of people and communities, in the free market economy, in the institutions of government and, above all, in the greatness of America. It is true that there are difficult days and trying times ahead of us, individually and collectively, but we simply cannot cast away our confidence. 

I found inspiration this past week from a somewhat unlikely source. President Jimmy Carter was not known for his great oratory, inspiring words or charisma. He should, however, always be remembered for his model of service and selflessness after his presidency. No modern president has shown better how to live a life of meaning, impact, influence and significance after holding the highest office in the land.

On July 15, 1979, Carter delivered a speech to the American people from the Oval Office. Most recall it as an address on inflation and the energy crisis. While he did cover those issues, the most powerful portion of his address was actually about America’s crisis of confidence.

Carter begins, “I know, of course, being president, that government actions and legislation can be very important. … But after listening to the American people, I have been reminded again that all the legislation in the world can’t fix what’s wrong with America. So, I want to speak to you first tonight about a subject even more serious than energy or inflation. I want to talk to you right now about a fundamental threat to American democracy.

“I do not mean our political and civil liberties. They will endure. And I do not refer to the outward strength of America … with unmatched economic power and military might.

“The threat is nearly invisible in ordinary ways.

“It is a crisis of confidence.

“It is a crisis that strikes at the very heart and soul and spirit of our national will. We can see this crisis in the growing doubt about the meaning of our own lives and in the loss of a unity of purpose for our nation.

“The erosion of our confidence in the future is threatening to destroy the social and the political fabric of America.”

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President Jimmy Carter delivers his energy speech on television on July 15, 1979., When Carter felt beset by pessimism amid the energy crisis in 1979, he gave a startling speech warning that a “crisis of confidence” posed a fundamental threat to U.S. democracy.

Dale G. Young, Associated Press

The same could be said of our nation today. As I read and reread Carter’s words, I kept thinking that his speech could, and probably should, be delivered in 2020. Given the current state of our union, no would know this address was written 41 years ago.

President Carter continued: “The confidence that we have always had as a people is not simply some romantic dream or a proverb in a dusty book that we read just on the Fourth of July. It is the idea which founded our nation and has guided our development as a people. Confidence in the future has supported everything else — public institutions and private enterprise, our own families, and the very Constitution of the United States. Confidence has defined our course and has served as a link between generations. We’ve always believed in something called progress. We’ve always had a faith that the days of our children would be better than our own.

“Our people are losing that faith, not only in government itself but in the ability as citizens to serve as the ultimate rulers and shapers of our democracy. As a people we know our past and we are proud of it. Our progress has been part of the living history of America, even the world. We always believed that we were part of a great movement of humanity itself called democracy, involved in the search for freedom; and that belief has always strengthened us in our purpose. But just as we are losing our confidence in the future, we are also beginning to close the door on our past.”

Striking at the heart of the country’s loss of confidence in both our past and our future, Carter said, “In a nation that was proud of hard work, strong families, close-knit communities, and our faith in God, too many of us now tend to worship self-indulgence and consumption. Human identity is no longer defined by what one does, but by what one owns. But we’ve discovered that owning things and consuming things does not satisfy our longing for meaning. We’ve learned that piling up material goods cannot fill the emptiness of lives which have no confidence or purpose.

“The symptoms of this crisis of the American spirit are all around us. For the first time in the history of our country a majority of our people believe that the next five years will be worse than the past five years. ...

“As you know, there is a growing disrespect for government and for churches and for schools, the news media, and other institutions. This is not a message of happiness or reassurance, but it is the truth and it is a warning.”

Carter concluded this portion of his address by challenging the American people: “We must face the truth, and then we can change our course. We simply must have faith in each other, faith in our ability to govern ourselves, and faith in the future of this nation. Restoring that faith and that confidence to America is now the most important task we face. It is a true challenge of this generation of Americans.”

There is so much to unpack and apply from this speech. Reflecting on it today, we could ask if Carter’s words were about a crisis of, or cause for, confidence in our country. 

The answer may be found in what we choose to do next as a nation. Carter shared a thought from a citizen who told him in a meeting prior to his speech, “We’ve got to stop crying and start sweating, stop talking and start walking, stop cursing and start praying. The strength we need will not come from the White House, but from every house in America.”

“This pattern for true confidence should be incorporated by leaders, elected officials and citizens everywhere.” — Boyd Matheson

Confidence is indeed a cottage industry. To me, confidence is never arrogance, and true confidence comes from having respect for the challenge, being ready for the task, having a solid plan to execute and gaining the patience to persevere. This pattern for true confidence should be incorporated by leaders, elected officials and citizens everywhere.

Despite current circumstances, I believe we live at a time and in a country that should inspire confidence. The notion of this nation called America actually incorporates into its formula of freedom all of our faults, our flaws and our failure to sometimes live up to our ideals. That notion is why America can continue as a confident shining city on a hill and a beacon of liberty to the world.

This is not the time to cower in a corner. This is not the time for a crisis of confidence. “Cast not away your confidence.” Instead, it is time to draw strength from each other and unite our efforts and energies to make a difference in our communities and states. I believe that in this land, because of this people, there continues to be a cause for confidence and hope for the future.