Christianity, Culture

The American Creed

While I am a Christian and therefore find allegiance to the kingdom of God, the person of Christ, my family, and personal virtue to trump loyalty to a nation or a state, I still really love being American. I went through a brief phase where my interest in Anabaptist theology and concerns for the dangers of statist loyalty and patriotic idolatry caused me to through out any concept of national identity with its abuses. That’s what Seneca and many of the early church fathers did with anger, it’s dangerous, so root it all out. But I do love America. I am, as David Bentley Hart says of himself, something of an american chauvinist. And so this closing salvo from Paul Johnson’s book, A History of the American People was touching to me, if not naive in some respects (I typed it because I wanted the passage to stick in my mind, any errors below are my own). It’s worth reading without my rambling reflections beneath it: 

“…[T]he story of America is essentially one of difficulties being overcome by intelligence and skill, by faith and strength of purpose, by courage and persistence. America today, with its 260 million people, its splendid cities, its vast wealth, and its unrivaled power, is a human achievement without parallel. That achievement-the transformation of a mostly uninhabited wilderness into the supreme national artifact of history-did not come about without heroic sacrifice and great sufferings stoically endured, many costly failures, huge disappointments, defeats, and tragedies. There have indeed been many set-backs in 400 years of American history. As we have seen, many unresolved problems, some of daunting size, remain. But the Americans are, above all, a problem-solving people. They do not believe that anything in this world is beyond human capacity to soar to and dominate. The will not give up. Full of essential goodwill to each other and to all, confident in their inherent decency, and their democratic skills, they will attack again and again the ills in their society, until they are overcome or at least substantially redressed.  So the ship of state sails on, and mankind still continues to watch its progress, with wonder and amazement and sometimes apprehension, as it moves into the unknown waters of the 21st century and the third millennium. The great American republican experiment is still the cynosure of the world’s eyes. It is still the first, best hope for the human race. Looking back on its past, and forward into its future, the auguries are that it will not disappoint an expectant humanity. (History of the American People 976)

Johnson’s remarkable paean to the American people only indirectly references the government. Instead it is largely about the cultural virtues that typify Americans, broadly. Some of his language is nearly numinous in nature, but it need not be taken that way. In a civic sense, America is exceptional. The question is whether his optimism will be proven well-founded or flimsy.

I think it is stupid for us, as a nation, to look to our past and reject it. To do so is to be lost. But many do just that, and like the baptists who reject church tradition they lose their way in the waves of the culture.

An interesting question to ask for Christians who read passages like the one above is this: are there cultural tools for Christian spiritual formation? Just as each culture has unique combinations of vices, so might each have unique combinations of virtues? For instance, certain cultural emphases might coinhere with the gospel in such a way as to help it be understood even more. My suspicion is that American culture focused a great deal on industriousness and problem solving. This can be seen in technological advancements and in the fact that a form of stoic pragmatist individualism seems to have been our chief philosophical contribution (Emerson and James). And so is there a version of the American creed that is naturallennobling for American Christians without appealing to baser forms of ‘my country is never wrong’ patriotism? I think so. The idea that Christians tend to believe in ‘America: Right or Wrong’ is silly on its face as many Americans fear that abortion is bringing America under God’s wrath precisely because America is wrong to allow it. 

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