Now that July 4th is over–pool enjoyed, burgers devoured, fireworks ‘oohed’ and ‘ahhed’ over–it’s worth stepping back and asking, “How should American Christians feel about our heritage?”
For most of my life, 5 simple words sufficed: “Proud to be an American.” I grew up revering the Founding Fathers, for faith as much as for their political acumen. The Revolutionary War was sanctioned by God, a just war led by Christians, whose faith in God led them to throw off the shackles of British tyranny. Our ongoing success validated our divine exceptionalism. I learned that we are a Christian nation, founded on Christian principles by Christian men, and our leaders have led us according to Christian values, at least up until the Clinton administration.
The problem is, my upbringing painted American history almost completely in rosy hues. When a story is that good, it’s usually because it’s propaganda.
Would we celebrate July 4th any differently if we didn’t believe the Revolutionary War to be a just war? Would it change anything to learn that in the years leading up to the war, taxes were actually higher in England and tea more expensive, than they were in the colonies? Or is it offensive to us that Puerto Rico, which pays nearly $4 billion in annual US taxes, represents a present reality of what our forefathers so abhorred as they proclaimed, “no taxation without representation”? Would we champion Puerto Rico’s Revolutionary War?
That’s the essence of another perspective I often hear today. The problem is, when a story is that bad, it’s usually because it’s propaganda.
Propagandists inhabit a world of sharp contrasts, starkly delineated choices, made by good guys or bad guys. They mix history with legend, forming a mythic narrative more to manipulate the future than accurately retell the past.
But the rest of us live in a world of nuance, blended with shades of grey, full of conflicted heroes and redemptive antagonists.
We live in a world where the US was founded on Christian principles and values by a group of deists, whose policy was dependent on the Bible as much as it was secular humanism. They resisted the tyranny of England with righteous indignation, even as they owned and abused slaves, perpetuating an economic system that required slavery. John Wesley referred to the American Revolution’s quest for liberty by saying, “Is not then all this outcry about liberty and slavery mere rant, and playing upon words?” America was one of the first countries to abolish the aristocracy, making it possible for any person of any class to ascend to wealth and power. And yet we have retained the barriers between American Indian and Anglo American, staining our legacy with genocide, deception, oppression, and isolation.
History rarely accommodates itself to a one-sided narrative; anyone who tells you otherwise is selling you something.
Our heritage, absent the propagandist’s sheen, doesn’t earn us the label “Christian nation.”
And yet, America remains a great nation. If you don’t believe me, just ask a woman in India. Or Christian in Nigeria. Or a country farmer in China. Or a political dissenter in Russia. Or a taxpayer in Brazil. Or pretty much anyone in Iran, Syria, North Korea, Cuba, etc.
So we see that history, when separated from politics, is always complicated.
Back to the original question, how should American Christians feel about our heritage?
We accept that worshiping America is just as unsightly as sulking in shame. So we thank God for our freedom, safety, and economic wealth. At the same time, we acknowledge that ours is an exceptional country, which doesn’t mean that America is God’s country, or that Americans are God’s people. And our pride is tempered by our history with slaves, American Indians, babies in utero, and unjust wars.
We thank God for the good while we mourn and learn from the evil. But, most important of all, we understand that ‘American’ is not who we are, not our identity.
We may be American citizens for a time, but we will be subjects of the kingdom heaven for forever.