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As our nation’s $17 trillion debt spirals out of control, and spiritual disciplines decline in the West, we need to face the reality of America’s inability to collectively sacrifice. Even the 150th anniversary of the Battle of Gettysburg seemed to pass this year with scant attention, as if such extreme sacrifice is alien and distant to our way of life today.

Washington’s brokenness is cheered by a majority of the political class, declaring a “crisis averted.” The “crisis” for a majority of the leaders in Washington, however, is not our debt or insatiable appetite to spend, but the notion that it might possibly involve limitations or must end in belt-tightening.  

During the recent spending debate, how many organizations dependent on government funding came forward to say they could make do with less? Even individuals in tea party groups, considered spend-slashing stalwarts, consistently declare they are against cuts to Social Security and Medicare. The irony is striking, given that entitlement reform is the only path to debt reduction. “The only society that can make entitlements work is the one that doesn’t feel entitled,” says National Review news editor Daniel Foster.

Likewise, there is a surging class of government dependents that look more and more to the state to take care of their every whim. The number of food stamp recipients totaled 17 million in 2000; today that number has swelled to 48 million. It’s not that Americans are inherently less capable of sacrifice, but they are captured, then strangled, by an increasing number of harmful incentives.

The decline of civic clubs and churches, and the weakening of family structure – groups Edmund Burke called the “little platoons” of democracy – are damaging our collective ability to sacrifice.

The growth of secularism too fuels a lack of sacrifice in America and selfishness among its leaders. The notion of sacrifice understood in much of the West reflects a Christian understanding requiring virtue. It is modeled in the atonement of Jesus Christ and through beautiful passages penned by the Apostle Paul, who said, “I consider everything a loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for Whose sake I have lost all things. I consider them garbage, that I may gain Christ” (Philippians 3:8,9).

America’s debt is creating, not servants of higher things, but slaves to government. Rampant growth and the federal debt explosion will transform the notion of American sacrifice from altruism, charity, and good works towards sacrifice for the state. Because of our national debt, an American with an average life expectancy, born in April 1979, is on the hook for $428,423 over his or her lifespan.

As government robs citizens of the idea of opportunity for all, Americans should heed the words of Abraham Lincoln who, after perhaps the greatest picture of sacrifice on American soil, implored the people to shoulder the burden together so “that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom.”

You’ve heard of a jealous God from the Ten Commandments, but at the rate the federal government is expanding it may grow jealous as it demands more and more sacrifice to safeguard the uninterrupted spending splurge. Over the past four decades, median income in this country has risen only 24 percent, yet federal spending has increased 288 percent. For a fifth straight year, America will run a deficit in excess of $1 trillion.

To recapture a deeper sense of personal and political liberty, Americans must collectively embody sacrifice now. “Redemption comes only through sacrifice,” Calvin Coolidge once reminded Americans. Failure to sacrifice now will in the end require a different variety of sacrifice. It will be for and in the name of the state. That kind of sacrifice will prove more costly, and will come at the expense of our political and spiritual liberties.

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Ray Nothstine is editor of the Civitas Institute in Raleigh, North Carolina