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Editor’s note: The following is excerpted from “The Content of Our Character,” a speech delivered by Wendell Griffen at the annual banquet of the Arkansas NAACP on Sept. 12, 2009.

It is profoundly noteworthy that Americans will accuse President Obama of lying about health care.

The people complaining about a public health-care funding option promoted by President Obama seem to forget that Medicare, Medicaid and the entire military health-care system are supported by public money. Every public school, public library, public street, highway and airport is supported by public money.

It says something profound and provocative about the character of a people when they will vilify a black president for proposing a public health-care option after driving along public roadways to town halls held in public buildings.

Congressman Joe Wilson of South Carolina, who accused President Obama of lying, enjoys health care for himself, four of his sons and their families through free military medical coverage known as TRICARE.

Congressman Wilson voted for the resolution to authorize the war in Iraq, yet voted 11 times against health care for veterans over the past eight years. He voted to cut veteran’s benefits – but not his own – so that tax cuts could go to wealthy people.

He even voted to cut funding to the Veterans Administration and repeatedly refused to support measures to extend TRICARE coverage to all reservists and National Guard members, despite the fact that many reservists and National Guard members have served multiple deployments in Iraq and Afghanistan and lost access to their civilian work benefits when they did so. That line of conduct provides a clear picture about character.

And it says something about the character of religious life in this society when preachers, priests and other religious leaders will not address the profound and provocative proof that our character suffers from a cancer that glorifies white leadership however inept, incompetent or corrupt it may be, but demonizes and demagogues black leadership no matter how well informed, patient or effective it may be.

I do not merely say this concerning white religious leaders. It is also true of black religious leaders. I have listened in vain to hear T.D. Jakes, Creflo Dollar, Eddie Long, Frederick Price or many of the revivalists who criss-cross the nation speak on these things. Judging from their failure to do so, it appears that the spirit that inspired and impelled Amos, Micah, Daniel, Jeremiah, Hosea, Ezekiel, John the Baptist and Jesus of Nazareth does not move them.

The question for our society is whether we can and will arrest the creeping cancer in our national character. This is a moral question of the first order. I do not have the answer to it.

I am a Christian preacher and social activist living in the power and strength of the gospel of resurrection. I live in hope, even in the face of darkness. Yet I am also a student of history, both secular and sacred. That history teaches a clear lesson: Any society that does not live up to its own creed must ultimately die from the cancer of its character failures.

This society came to the brink of such death once, and only a Civil War spared it. When I think of the human suffering that occurred before that war, during that war and after it, I shudder at the implications of our current predicament.

Then, I turn to the source of my strength and the bedrock of my hope. I draw strength from the faith of our forebears and their sacrifices. I recall that there have been other depressing times in our history.

And I pray the words of the anthem that holds so much meaning for our people: “God of our weary years, God of our silent tears; Thou who hast brought us thus far on the way. Thou who hast by Thy might, led us into the light; keep us forever on the path, we pray. Lest our feet stray from the places we met Thee. Lest our hearts, drunk with the wine of the world, we forget Thee. Shadowed beneath Thy hand, may we forever stand, true to our God, true to our native land.”

Wendell L. Griffen is pastor of New Millennium Church in Little Rock, Ark., and a visiting law professor at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock Bowen School of Law. He is also owner/CEO of a consulting firm and parliamentarian of the National Baptist Convention, U.S.A. He lives with his wife in Little Rock, Ark.

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