The letter from Sandra Garrison of Fayetteville, N.C., was simple enough: "I enjoy your magazine, and appreciate the Christian viewpoint. I am an elementary schoolteacher. I'm writing to request a list of names of the most important world leaders and photographs of each if possible. Many thanks, in advance, from the young scholars who will benefit from your efforts."
At first I thought this one would be easy to answer. Most important world leaders, hmmm: List the alpha dogs from the United States, China, Russia, Japan, Germany, maybe Britain and France and India. But then I started thinking about leadership and wondering: Why automatically race to government? What about business, organized religion, and other spheres?
Start thinking that way, and the list of possibilities grows. Bill Gates and other technological innovators/marketers. Billy Graham and John Paul II. Michael Jordan and Tiger Woods. Australian Rupert Murdoch, because of his media ownership in Europe and America. They've all led millions to look into their machines, their faiths, their styles, or their ways of presenting reality.
What about those whose ideas lead the leaders? Augustine, Mohammed, Adam Smith, Charles Darwin, and many others have led the way to changed understandings of how the world works. What of those who teach the leaders? And what about the adage, "the hand that rocks the cradle rules the world?" Aren't mothers the most important world leaders?
I started out purposely staying away from those with reputations only in one country, because the question was about world leaders. But, given the way American movies are watched around the world, what about Steven Spielberg? Given that people in many countries aspire to the life they see on America's leading television export, Baywatch, what about the producers of that show?
That train of thought, after making many stops, finally led me to the answer I'd like to offer to Sandra Garrison and her Fayetteville students. Because I've written about compassionate conservatism and my home in Austin is a convenient stop for foreign reporters assigned to make sense of our presidential election, I've been interviewed in recent months by journalists from 23 countries.
These reporters tell me that their countrymen know about Texas from having watched the television show Dallas. They know about Christianity in America from having seen some televangelist. Obviously, their readers are often mixed up, and the journalists themselves tend to look at America with jaundice and with awe. But here's what's vital: Almost all of these reporters say that the United States is the most important country in the world today.
I don't think they say this just to flatter an American. I hope I do not believe them because of nationalistic arrogance. But I also believe that the United States is the most important country today, because we are the site of a vast experiment that the whole world is watching.
The most important country of ancient times was Israel. The laws laid down by Moses set up Israel to be a holy people separated from others and dedicated to God. The land itself was a theme park, with everything-geography, economics, laws, customs-stressing holiness. In the end, of course, the insufficiency of all those helps showed man's desperate need for Christ.
The United States is the most important country of modern times because America is a theme park devoted to liberty. We are the envy of much of the world because of the freedom we have to speak, write, worship, and work. We are free to build businesses and to travel. We are also free to consume pornography, practice adultery and homosexuality, and take advantage of others and ourselves. Other countries have their appeals, but for good reasons or bad, America has grabbed the imagination of the world.
Right now the future of our American theme park is very much in doubt. That's because a lesson regularly taught in the 18th century has now largely been forgotten: Liberty without virtue becomes license, licentiousness leads to anarchy, and a reign of anarchy leaves the theme park in disrepair.
Who are the most important world leaders today? Those who will determine whether this nation, conceived in liberty but with a respect for virtue, will long endure. Those who will be free to do what they want but will know what not to do. Will they by grace do what is right, or will they succumb? That question is vital, for whatever path they take in our city on a hill will be watched around the world, and imitated.
Who are the most important world leaders today? Children of Sandra Garrison's class, look in the mirror.