Today America celebrated the 236th anniversary of the final ratification of the Declaration of Independence, which accelerated a war with the British crown and led to the independence of the United States. I personally met up at a restaurant with two friends I went to college with, then went to the Marine Corps Memorial at night to see the fireworks. While it was fun, I must be brutally honest and say that I view this holiday with mixed emotions.
On the surface, how can you criticize such a fun holiday? During my growing up years in Harmony, PA, we did the same fun thing every year: we would get up, go and watch the parade in neighboring Zelienople, complete with fire trucks, police cars, decked out cement mixers, veterans marches, enthusiastic children on their bikes, patriotic equestrians, and a 70 year-old doing splits (a high school classmate of my grandfather, apparently). We would then proceed to a nearby park for games, hanging out, and upbeat patriotic music. Dinner would then be at my grandparents’ house, with an assortment of hot dogs, burgers, macaroni salad, and my mother’s famous rainbow jello. Then we’d sleep off the food at home, and complete the day around 10 PM with the fireworks. No place does the 4th of July like my hometown.
And since the holiday in its current form is designed to commemorate ideas that “make this country great”, many of them indeed are great, such as free speech, free press, free religion, free assembly, and private property (I know the last one is hotly debated by some). We live in a country where we can criticize our national leadership and not get arrested for it. Journalists generally do not fear crackdown. From what I can see, religions are treated more equally than in most countries in the world, including Western Europe, often hailed as the epitome of progress. The apparent surveillance of Muslims is an ugly issue, and yet in my estimation, American nonetheless treats Muslims better than Christians, Jews, and atheists are treated in most of their countries. And the economic opportunities, while arguably waning, have made us perhaps the closest thing to a classless society, as even leftist historian Noam Chomsky has noted.
However, two primary things about the American exceptionalism that is explicitly and implicitly preached on this holiday cause me to wince and think. The first is that many of my fellow evangelical Christians use this holiday to advance an agenda that demands Americans return to Christian principles this nation was supposedly founded on. I tend to dislike this because it causes Christians to focus outwardly on advancing our beliefs through worldly means, and because it is not very historically accurate. While the young adults from the Great Awakening, who were elderly by the time of the Revolution, were very religious and had a grand moralistic vision, the midlifers and young adults who carried out the Revolution were not so much. George Washington was not a particularly faithful church attender, and John Adams made several statements very much in contradiction to Christian orthodoxy. They wrote a letter to Libyan leaders explicitly expressing the United States was no a Christian nation. Madison, who drafted the Constitution, although his views were more orthodoxically Christian, was asked why he did not include God in the document, simply replied, “We didn’t think to.” Patrick Henry was also a devout Christian, but his side of the debate did not fare well against the federalists. Benjamin Franklin was not a card-carrying deist, but he was not a traditional Christian and was very irreverent towards it. Two other thinkers who shaped American thought, Jefferson and Paine, were both strongly opposed to organized biblical Christianity, the latter even rewriting the Bible and removing all supernatural events from it. These men, while brilliant, were from a very rationalistic generation, who largely viewed God as one who set the universe in motion, giving humans the power to reason and the scientific method, but was not actively concerned with human activity, taking a more spectatorial role. It has been said to me, which made sense, that these men framed the system under the presumption of Christian outlook among the population, which is proving a major variable, and not a given.
The second thing about American exceptionalism I dislike is its presumption of the United States and its people as the most just, righteous, and generous entities in the world. Let’s take a look at our history. The doctrine of manifest destiny, much the basis of American growth, contributed to the displacement of the Native American population, who were treated in ways such that it would not stand the test of modern human rights agendas. The treatment of the Natives became so egregious that many of them allied with the British invaders during the War of 1812, an unpopular war that had the New England region threatening to secede. Hardly the romantic heroism pictured in the Star-Spangled Banner. This displacement continued throughout the 1800s, and in the 1830s, the Mexicans were added to the unfortunate recipients of manifest destiny, culminating in a war that Lincoln actually condemned at one point. Following that war, we were the last country to abolish slavery, one of history’s great evils that only ended with an internal American war that killed 600,000 soldiers combined, and hundreds of thousands more civilians, often very brutally. Then at the end of that century, to acquire even more territory, we engaged in a war with Spain that later became assumed to have started under false pretenses (we likely blew up the USS Maine ourselves). In our new territories, while not as nasty as many European powers, we were nonetheless often brutal. We fought in World War I, for reasons still not clear. In World War II, while the threat to our well-being was clearer, we still segregated blacks from military units, put Japanese-Americans in internment camps, and indiscriminately bombed numerous German cities, particularly Dresden, and ended the war by using an unspeakably powerful weapon in Japan, with monstrous consequences. The 1960s and 70s were filled with the brutality of napalm in the Vietnam War, and the grim reminder that our supposedly just system had allowed blacks to live as second-class citizens, which even the Soviet Union often criticized us for. Since 1991, we have fought two wars in Iraq, killing hundreds of thousands of their civilians, as well as thousands of our own soldiers, neither of which likely would have been fought without oil in the mix. And look at the present. We have two wars going on, where people continue to do. We perform millions of abortions, have millions of citizens living in poverty, healthcare and education systems in complete disarray, inner-city violence, a well-run sex trafficking industry that oppresses women, children, and even some men, and horrible self-centered habits of many people. Racism remains an ugly reality. And what makes us the greatest country in the world? Not our literacy ranking, life expectancy, or infant mortality, which, once the envy of the world, have fallen in rank significantly. We continue to desecrate our natural resources and environment, which climate change may be beginning to demonstrate.
All this said, the past is the past, and we cannot change that. We have to accept this country’s history has provided us with a lot of good, but also a lot of bad. I also have to accept that I am, to put it crudely, one lucky son of a b**** to live in this country, with the freedoms and economic wealth that you will find here. Yet, as Jesus said, to whom much is given, much is expected. As Christians, we must face the reality that the world, including the United States, is not as God intended, and our faith must be the basis of righting that wrong, through both social action and our personal witness, and hopefully the moral example of the collective church. We should try to see to it that the rights guaranteed in the constitution are truly extended to all people, with our legacy of racism. We must also avoid nationalistic idolatry that is a cancer in the church, as was evident upon the conversion of Constantine. We must extend hospitality to all humans. Thus, while we should feel free to enjoy ourselves on this holiday, it must also be viewed with a degree of sobriety.