America at the Crossroads


Ezra Taft Benson
The Ten Commandments

I love America. I love the people in this beloved land as well as our Father’s children in all other countries. The Lord decreed that America is “a land choice above all other lands” to those who keep his commandments. We remain here in this land as long as we remain in God’s divine favor.

There are principles that, if applied and acted upon, are conducive to the social, spiritual, and economic well-being of individuals as well as nations. They came from God himself to Moses and form the foundation for civilized society. These principles, known as the Decalogue, are what we commonly refer to as the Ten Commandments.

The commandments circumscribe the relationships of man with God and also man’s social relationships with his fellowman. A brief consideration of these divine laws will provide us with a diagnosis of some of the ailments of our society and the individuals who live in it.

1 and 2. The first and second commandments stipulate our worship and belief in God: “Thou shalt have no other gods before me,” and “Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image.” (Ex. 20:3–4.) Worship of and belief in God have been basic to America’s collective progress for 200 years. It is the foundation to its Judaic-Christian culture. Its coins bear the inscription, “In God We Trust.” Citizens pledge allegiance to the Republic that is one nation “under God.” Its officials take oaths of office before God. Yet today that worship and belief are waning. Efforts are even being made to remove the references to God from the coins, the Pledge of Allegiance, and other public ceremonies. Today we see man walking in his own way, after the image of his own god, an image that bears the stamp of worldliness, lust, greed, and power. As Abraham Lincoln pronounced during the Civil War, so now may we say, “We have forgotten God!”

3. “Thou shalt not take the name of the Lord thy God in vain.” (Ex. 20:7.) The stage, the screen, the novel, casual conversation, the street discussion, and too often the fireside intimacies are punctuated with blasphemy, to which may be added, as of the same nature, coarse, ribald jokes, foul stories, and low small talk. Some would have us believe that profanity is a sign of masculinity and emotional maturity.

4. “Remember the sabbath day, to keep it holy.” (Ex. 20:8.) Many—too many—have almost ceased to observe the Sabbath. Not only is it a workday now, but it is a day of amusement and recreation: skiing, skating, hunting, fishing, picnicking, racing, movies, theaters, ball playing—football, baseball, basketball—dancing, and all other forms of fun-making are coming largely to be the rule among too many so-called Christians.

“Six days shalt thou labour, and do all thy work.” (Ex. 20:9.) We are becoming an idle people. We more and more expect to live with little or no work. Hours of work become shorter and shorter; pay, therefore, greater and greater. But finally we shall reach the minimum of work. As you know, it takes so many man-hours to raise the necessary foods to sustain a man’s life and to provide the other necessities of clothing, shelter, and fuel. In the final analysis this should measure the minimum working day and its compensation. People have only what they produce.

5. Next comes “Honour thy father and thy mother” (Ex. 20:12), which Christ declared meant to support them. Yet never before in recorded history has this law of God been so violated as it is today. Untold thousands of children in this nation have abandoned their parents to the care of the state. This action has brought in its wake a host of other ills: idleness, greed, covetousness, cheating, hiding property, lying about it, and the adoption by the child and parent of any device that may bring the parent within the provisions of government support.

6. “Thou shalt not kill.” (Ex. 20:13.) We still frown on murder, but need we be reminded in what small esteem life is now held? Men were to live, else they could not work out their destiny. This mandate was given to Israel and to each child thereof. It is the command not to commit the sin of Cain. It is binding upon every one of God’s children. It speaks to them as individuals; it commands them as associated together in nations.

7. “Thou shalt not commit adultery” (Ex. 20:14), and later, “Thou shalt not covet thy neighbour’s wife.” (Ex. 20:17.) Here God gives the great law of chastity that lies at the base of purity of family blood and the undefiled home. In the category of sins, unchastity stands next to murder; nor may we forget that insidious crime of abortion that often follows unchastity. Never in this generation have morals been so loose as now. Sex is all but deified, and yet at the same time, it is put before youth in its lowest, coarsest, and most debasing form. The curtain of modesty has been torn aside, and in play and book and movie and television, in magazine story and picture, even magazine advertisement, immorality stands out in all its vulgarity and rottenness.

8. “Thou shalt not steal.” (Ex. 20:15.) What do our criminal court records disclose on this—records that are filled with accounts of juvenile delinquencies in numbers never before equaled in this country? When God commanded, “Thou shalt not steal,” he thereby recognized the fundamental right of property. How much we pay for this in increased costs of merchandise because of employee pilfering and shoplifting, higher insurance rates, courts of law, and penal institutions!

9. “Thou shalt not bear false witness.” (Ex. 20:16.) The violations of God’s law already dealt with tell us that false witnessing (lying) is not absent from us. God’s law is a law of truthfulness.

10. Last, “Thou shalt not covet.” (Ex. 20:17.) Covetousness is one of the besetting sins of this generation, and our covetousness reaches every item forbidden in the commandments—our neighbor’s house, his wife, his help, his worldly goods, and everything that is our neighbor’s. Covetousness, plus love of idleness, lie at the root of our violation of the law of work, with all the ills that has brought. Covetousness has invaded our homes, our communities, the nations of the world. It has brought with it greed, and avarice, and ambition, and love of power. Men scheme, plan, overreach, cheat, and lie to get their neighbor’s heritage. Covetousness threatens the peace of the world today more than any other one element. But God said, “Thou shalt not covet.”

These are the foundation principles upon which all civilized government and our present civilization is built. To disregard them will lead to inevitable personal character loss and ruin. To disregard them as a nation will inevitably lead that nation to destruction.

I remember a number of years ago when Cecil B. DeMille, the great producer of the film The Ten Commandments, was invited to accept an honorary degree from Brigham Young University. In his address to the student body, Mr. DeMille made this interesting observation. He said that men and nations cannot really break the Ten Commandments; they can only break themselves against them. How true that is!

It must be remembered that the Founding Fathers of the United States of America were men imbued with these basic principles. It is a part of my faith that these were “wise men whom [God] raised up” for the purpose of establishing the Constitution of the United States. They recognized that there are two possible sources to the origin of the freedoms we have come to know as human rights. Rights are either God-given as part of a divine plan, or they are granted as part of the political plan. Reason, necessity, and religious conviction and belief in the sovereignty of God led these men to accept the divine origin of these rights. To God’s glory, and the credit of these men, this nation was uniquely born.

“We hold these truths to be self-evident; that all men are created equal; that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights; that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. That to secure these rights, governments are instituted among men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.” (Declaration of Independence.)

Since God created man with certain inalienable rights, and man, in turn, created government to help secure and safeguard those rights, it follows that man is superior to government and should remain master over it, not the other way around.

We also need to keep before us the truth that people who do not master themselves and their appetites will soon be mastered by others.

I wonder if we in America are rearing a generation that seemingly does not understand the fundamentals of God’s commandments or the principles upon which our country was founded. These principles are the secret to America’s greatness! The central issue before the people today is the same issue that inflamed the hearts of our Founding Father patriots in 1776 to strike out for independence. That issue is whether the individual exists for the state or whether the state exists for the individual.

Now you ask what you can do as one individual or family to influence your community and thereby contribute to a cure of the ailments that afflict our body politic today? I know of no better question a citizen could ask himself than that. May I suggest a few things which I believe would be beneficial.

1. May I urge you to keep your own families strong. A nation is no stronger than the sum total of its families. If you accept the truth of that statement, then you must conclude that the American family has serious problems. Divorce is epidemic. The incidence of delinquency is on the rise. The answer is not more marriage counselors or social workers. The answer lies in a husband and wife taking their marriage covenant seriously, realizing that they both have a dual responsibility to make their marriage a happy one.

The answer lies in a father providing spiritual leadership in the home. The answer lies in mothers staying home at the hearthside to provide the care and concern that no babysitter or day-care center can ever provide.

The answer is for both to teach their children fundamental spiritual principles that will instill faith in God, faith in one’s country, and faith in one’s family. May I urge all of you to gather your families about you on a once-a-week basis for a family home night? Such evenings where scriptures are read, skits acted out, songs sung around the piano, games played, and family prayers offered, like links in an iron chain, bind a family together with pride, tradition, loyalty to each other, and strength.

Having come out of such a home where home evenings were practiced, having continued such a practice with our own children, and now seeing them carry on this same happy tradition, I testify to its blessings and benefits and commend the practice to you.

2. I would respectfully urge you to live by the fundamental principles of work, thrift, and self-reliance and to teach your children by your example.

It was never intended in God’s divine plan that man should live off the labor of someone else. Live within your own earnings. Put a portion of those earnings regularly into savings. Avoid unnecessary debt. Be wise by not trying to expand too rapidly. Learn to manage well what you have before you think of expanding further. This is the kind of advice would give my own, and is, in my opinion, the key to sound home, business, and government management.

I would further counsel you to pay your honest tithes and contribute generously to the support of the poor and needy through the fast offerings. Then store at least a year’s supply of basic food, clothing, and fuel. Then you will find these blessings will accrue:

You will not be confronted with the danger of losing all you have because of inflation or depression.

You will have security that no government can provide, savings and supplies for emergencies.

You can ask God’s blessings and his protecting care on you and your family.

You are contributing to the solution of our country’s ills, rather than contributing to its problems.

3. May I humbly urge you to learn about the Constitution, the Declaration of Independence, and other basic documents of our great country so that you can sustain it and the free institutions set up under it. It is a part of my faith that the Constitution of the United States was inspired by God. I reverence it akin to the revelations that have come from God. The Lord declared he established it “by the hands of wise men whom [he] raised up unto this very purpose.” (D&C 101:80.) Referring to the principles thereof, the Prophet Joseph Smith, dedicating the Kirtland Temple, prayed it should be “established forever.” (D&C 109:54.)

Before we can intelligently sustain the principles of this divinely inspired document, we need to understand it and the philosophy that underlies it. We will then be in a position to determine encroachments on our liberty when well-intentioned, but unenlightened politicians attempt to circumvent those principles. The greatest watchdog of our freedom is an informed electorate.

4. May I urge you to seek out good, wise, and honest men for public office, and then support them with your vote. You will note the conditions wherein the Lord counseled that we should support men in political office. They ought to be “good,” “wise,” and “honest.” Some men are good and honest, but not wise. These qualities combined provide statesmanship. I’ve said it many times: what we need today are men with a mandate higher than the ballot box!

5. I would urge you to heed strictly the commandments of God, particularly the Ten Commandments. As long as we regard God as our Sovereign and uphold his laws, we shall be free from bondage and be protected from external danger.

Yes, my brothers and sisters, fellow citizens of this great nation, there are sovereign remedies for the debilitating diseases that are eating away the vitals of our political, social, economic, and religious lives. Those remedies are: keep the commandments of God and uphold the basic principles upon which this country was founded.

America has a spiritual foundation. But today she stands at the crossroads, The crisis before her is a crisis of faith; the need is for greater spirituality and a return to the basic principles upon which this nation was founded.

In the words of Thomas Paine: “These are the times that try men’s souls. The summer soldier and the sunshine patriot will in this crisis, shrink from the service of his country; but he that stands it now, deserves the love and thanks of man and woman.” (The Life and Major Writings of Thomas Paine, ed. Philip S. Foner, Seacaucus, New Jersey: The Citadel Press, 1974, p. 50.)That was said on December 23, 1776, a time of great crisis in our struggle for independence. We face a similar spiritual crisis more than 200 years later.

The days ahead are sobering and challenging and will require the faith, prayers, loyalty, and courage of every citizen.

May God’s blessings be upon us that your generation will be equal to the task.