What Makes America Great?

I’m one of those old-fashioned fellows who still believes what I was taught in grade school, that America is unique among the nations by being founded not on mere power but on ideas and ideals. Those ideas have been often articulated, often forgotten, often remembered again. Today they are being rather openly challenged by our president.

MAYFLOWER COMPACT, 1620
We “solemnly and mutually, in the presence of God, and one another, covenant and combine ourselves together into a civil body politic; . . . and by virtue hereof to enact, constitute, and frame, such just and equal laws, ordinances, acts, constitutions, and offices, from time to time, as shall be thought most met and convenient for the general good of the colony. . .”

What’s important here? First, this is a compact made in the presence of God and one another. That is, the men of the Mayflower (only about half of whom were Pilgrims) thought of their union as part of living in the presence of God and part of their sense of community together. Second, they agreed to form the rudiments of a government to create just and equal laws. Those two adjectives, just and equal, resound throughout American history. Third, this new government is established by the mutual agreement of the people.

DECLARATION OF INDEPENDENCE, 1776
“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.–That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed. . .”

This is remarkably similar to the Mayflower Compact. First, the foundation for the new nation is the conviction that God is our Creator and that he has created us equal and granted us inherent rights that no government can justly violate. Second, the government is to exercise just powers, not just whatever powers it can garner. Third, the government is authorized by the people, by the consent of the governed.

Faith, justice and equality, the citizenry as the ultimate authority: these are the ideas built into America’s foundations. Having tried for some decades now to throw off the shackles of faith, we are struggling to sustain justice and equality and the primacy of the electorate. When a president loses the popular vote by nearly three million votes, then declares himself to have won by a massive landslide, his aim is clearly to consider himself to have been authorized to be a dictator.

US CONSTITUTION, 1787
“We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.”

By the consent of the people, the nation is formed with six purposes: union, justice, domestic peace, common defense, general welfare, and liberty. The theological foundation is not mentioned, though in fact virtually all of the framers shared a common sense that we are accountable to God, our Creator, Sustainer, and Judge. The government itself, however, is meant to be secular, not anti-religious but religiously neutral.

The emphasis is on the consent of the people and the values to be guaranteed, beginning with the union itself. Within the context of unity can come justice, peace, and liberty.

GETTYSBURG ADDRESS, 1863
The decades that followed found the fledgling nation sorely tried, first by the Revolutionary War, then by the difficulties of establishing an actual union of the states, then by the War of 1812, and finally by the Civil War.

From the War of 1812 came the poem that became our national anthem, the Star Spangled Banner, with its wonderful description of America as “the land of the free and the home of the brave.”  We do not cower behind defensive walls but stand forth with courage to guarantee liberty and justice for all.

And of course from the Civil War we have Lincoln’s extraordinary Gettysburg Address, in which he calls us to be dedicated to the proposition that “this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom—and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.”

We the people, responsive to God, are committed to freedom. All government, by its very nature, is a limitation on liberty. Thus, our nation – with a primary goal of liberty and yet a government of one degree or another of restriction – abides in a permanent but creative tension. Libertarians want much more emphasis on freedom; progressives much more on restriction, and our president wants a great deal more power than is rightfully his.

STATUE OF LIBERTY, 1886
At the time of the erection of the Statue of Liberty, poet Emma Lazarus wrote a poem about the statue and sold it at auction to help raise money to build the pedestal under Lady Liberty. In 1903, the poem was engraved on a plaque and attached to the statue. In her poem Lazurus captures the spirit of the Statue of Liberty with words that have touched the hearts of countless thousands of immigrants:

Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”

If ever there was a time when the world needs to hear this welcoming invitation from the world’s greatest nation, it is in our own day. Yet, very sadly, what we are seeing instead is a new flare up of isolationism, selfishness, and self-promotion as America.

May God grant us the grace to live through this recurrence of a diseased spirit so that we might once again open our hearts and shores to the homeless and tempest-tossed.

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About mthayes42

I am a retired pastor, interested in the Bible, cross-cultural ministries, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, and the current and past history of western civilization.
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