America, the land of the free, has had its dark sides. From the slavery to the culture of death, it is easy to point to a legacy of evils. But it is also easy to point to a legacy of good deeds. Pope John Paul II did just that in his words read to the Feb. 5 National Prayer Breakfast in Washington, D.C.

Remembering that he and his countrymen were saved from Nazi darkness in part by American intervention, the Holy Father pointed to the real legacy of America: its founding vision, which gave unprecedented freedoms to people who, in turn, were expected to develop good character through religion.

Americans like Frederick Douglass and Martin Luther King Jr. beat slavery and its aftermath by recalling their country to its founding principles. The Pope hopes that today's citizens, and the legislators whom he addressed, will do the same against the culture of death

“Your nation was built as an experiment in ordered freedom, an experiment in which the exercise of individual freedom would contribute to the common good. The American separation of church and state as institutions was accompanied from the beginning of your republic by the conviction that strong religious faith, and the public expression of religiously informed judgments, contribute significantly to the moral health of the body politic. …

“In the great Western democratic tradition, men and women in political life … are not mere brokers of power in a political process taking place in a vacuum, cut off from private and public morality. Leadership in a true democracy involves much more than simply the mastering of techniques of political ‘management’: Your vocation as ‘representatives’ calls for vision, wisdom, a spirit of contemplation and a passion for justice and truth.

“Looking back on my own lifetime, I am convinced that the epoch-making changes taking place and the challenges appearing at the dawn of this new millennium call for just such a ‘prophetic’ function on the part of religious believers in public life. And, may I say, this is particularly true of you who represent the American people, with their rich heritage of commitment to freedom and equality under the law, their spirit of independence and commitment to the common good, their self-reliance and generosity in sharing their God-given gifts. In the century just ended, this heritage became synonymous with freedom itself for people throughout the world, as they sought to cast off the shackles of totalitarianism and to live in freedom.

“As one who is personally grateful for what America did for the world in the darkest days of the 20th century, allow me to ask: Will America continue to inspire people to build a truly better world, a world in which freedom is ordered to truth and goodness? Or will America offer the example of a pseudo-freedom which, detached from the moral norms that give life direction and fruitfulness, turns in practice into a narrow and ultimately inhuman self-enslavement, one which smothers people's spirits and dissolves the foundations of social life?

“These questions pose themselves in a particularly sharp way when we confront the urgent issue of protecting every human being's inalienable right to life from conception until natural death. This is the great civil rights issue of our time, and the world looks to the United States for leadership in cherishing every human life and in providing legal protection for all the members of the human community, but especially those who are weakest and most vulnerable.

“For religious believers who bear political responsibility, our times offer a daunting yet exhilarating challenge. I would go so far as to say that their task is to save democracy from self-destruction. Democracy is our best opportunity to promote the values that will make the world a better place for everyone, but a society which exalts individual choice as the ultimate source of truth undermines the very foundations of democracy. If there is no objective moral order which everyone must respect, and if each individual is expected to supply his or her own truth and ethic of life, there remains only the path of contractual mechanisms as the way of organizing our living together in society. In such a society the strong will prevail and the weak will be swept aside.

“As I have written [in the encyclical Centesimus Annus, No. 26], ‘if there is no ultimate truth to guide and direct political action, then ideas and convictions can easily be manipulated for reasons of power. As history demonstrates, a democracy without values easily turns into open or thinly disguised totalitarianism’” (No. 4-5). When a man who's lived under both Nazis and communists warns us about totalitarianism, we do well to listen.