On this July 4, celebrating our nation’s birthday, how should Christians view America’s role in the world and their role in America?
In his The Case for Goliath, Michael Mandelbaum suggests an appreciation for America’s global vocation can be likened to Frank Capra’s It’s a Wonderful Life. A bank clerk named George Bailey played by Jimmy Stewart glumly imagines his existence in a small town to have been worthless and, in a moment of despair, even exclaims his wish never to have been born. A bemused angel appears to grant him his wish, and Bailey walks the street and enters the homes of Bedford Falls to witness how life transpired without him. His parents, the woman he married, and various friends all have lived tragically in his absence. His brother drowns because Bailey was not there to save him. The pharmacist mistakenly confused poison for medicine, killing a child, because Bailey was not there as his alert employee. The town is under the control of a cynical land developer whose influence Bailey had countered, and the streets are filled with the fruits of his moral indifference: seedy saloons, gambling dens, burlesque theaters. Viewing the full panoply of his universe absent him, thanks to the angel, Bailey realizes that for all his failures and self-absorption, his exertions were not in vain. Without directly theologizing, It’s a Wonderful Life illustrates that no life that pursues good under God’s care is ever in vain.
How would the world appear absent America and its military, economic and cultural influence? Reflecting back on the last century, it can be surmised that Germany may have won World War I, which began 100 years ago this year, if the United States had not entered that war on the Allied side. In his new book Catastrophe 1914, British military historian Max Hastings persuasively argues that a Europe dominated by an undefeated German military dictatorship would have been undesirable indeed. Far more ghastly would have been a Europe, or world, dominated by Hitler’s Germany, had America not joined the Allies in World War II. After that war, the United States organized global resistance to an expansionist Soviet Union, when Communism still genuinely appealed to millions globally. Western Europe could have shared Eastern Europe’s plight of dreary occupation and police state socialism. South Korea would have succumbed to nightmarish North Korea. Eventually democratic Taiwan would have fallen to Maoist terror. Helping to ensure defeat for the great totalitarian threats of the 20thcentury, each of which was especially pernicious to Christianity, has made America’s role in the world especially unique and desirable in human history.
But there’s more. The global economy over which America presides, which began in the ashes of the last world war’s horrors, and expanded exponentially after the Soviet Union’s fall, has lifted billions of people out of extreme poverty, raised life expectancy and health standards to unparalleled highs, allowed rule of law and relatively decent government to govern billions who previously knew only arbitrary dictatorship, and facilitated a relative global peace over the last 70 years almost without historical precedent. In his new book, Inventing Freedom: How the English-Speaking Peoples Made the Modern World, British member of the European Parliament Daniel Hannan traces the unique liberties that the Anglosphere, now led by America, have fostered and perpetuated globally. These concepts of legal equality, free speech, property rights, freedom from capricious arrest, rewarding “production better than predation,” are quite unusual in history and culture, and they propelled America to global leadership. Hannan roots many of these liberties in Britain’s historic Christian and specifically Protestant faith, a faith now diminished in the motherland but whose energy and insights still bear ample fruit worldwide.
Despite the many blessings on our own land, Christians in America are understandably in a funk and sometimes ambivalent about their civic responsibilities. America is today, as it always has been, a sinful nation that fails God’s standards of holiness and righteousness in a million ways. Of late there is the legal institutionalization of sexual immorality, the collapse of traditional family and consequent millions of children without stable homes, the now 41 year old legalized abortion on demand regime, popular culture’s increasingly dehumanizing trashiness, public and higher education’s pervasive postmodern amorality, and the grinding imposition of the new secular zeitgeist even at the price of religious liberty, among other justifiable laments.
Every nation offers the Devil plenty of playgrounds, and ours is no exception. But we should not commit the egotism of believing our age is the wickedest. American history, like all of human history, is full of chicanery, injustice and vice. Just read the sermons of America’s great revivalist preachers, themselves always flawed, from the 17th century onwards. Our ancestors got drunk, visited brothels, had abortions, trafficked in human chattel, stole land, enforced segregation, abetted riots, practiced eugenics, and knew almost every vice known to fallen humanity.
Yet Providence has frequently and repeatedly deployed our nation for mighty works of righteousness, despite the constant unworthiness of our citizens. We should not be proud but grateful for America’s moral and material accomplishments, by God’s grace, and our nation’s continuing central role in human history. We have a duty to model lawful liberty and responsible prosperity to the rest of the world, which, however grudgingly, still often looks to the United States. America must continue to lead the global economy, promote humanitarianism, and preside over global security.
There are no appealing or even plausible alternatives to American leadership anywhere on the global horizon for decades to come. Many Christians are apprehensive about speaking of America as specially chosen, or exceptional. But every human individual and community is divinely chosen for particular purposes. The United States, with more influence over the world than any other country, now or ever, has commensurately large responsibilities that we cannot possibly deny or shirk. Such duties for our nation are both humbling and honoring. And to the extent that God presides over all human events, our nation’s special role is His gracious will for this time.
In the founding document for my organization, called “Christianity and Democracy,” the late Richard John Neuhaus naturally rejected that America is a new Israel offering redemption to the world. He readily acknowledged that God has no special covenant with America. But he said: “In this continuing quest to secure a freedom that is worthy of a humanity made in God’s image and likeness, we believe that the United States of America is, on balance and considering the alternatives, a force for good,” while readily admitting America is “far from having fully actualized that ideal in its own life.” And he made clear: “Because America is a large and influential part of creation, because America is the home of most of the heirs of Israel of old, and because this is a land in which his church is vibrantly free to live and proclaim the Gospel to the world, we believe that America has a peculiar place in God’s promises and purposes.” He emphasized that America “under God” means “under judgment,” with a special vocation that includes serving as the “primary bearer of democratic possibility in the world today.” Such a statement for him was not nationalistic but simply factual, and fraught with “grave responsibility.” Neuhaus likewise declared: “We are also mindful that this is the nation for which we are most immediately accountable.”
This last sentence is most important. Christians are often devoted to the abstract and the ideal while losing sight of the tangible immediate. Our God-given duties begin with those to whom we are most proximate and have the greatest influence: our family, friends, neighbors, church and the wider community that is our nation. American Christians in 2014 are specially called to serve our nation, to seek its material and spiritual health, to help it fulfill its global duties, and to strive to align it with God’s purposes of holiness, justice and peace whenever possible.
In his final book, American Babylon, Neuhaus explored the meaning of Christian service in the kingdom of man and the Kingdom of God. “When I meet God, I expect to meet him as an American,” he wrote. Where God has placed us in time and space is inescapably and intrinsically a part of our divinely appointed identity. Jesus was and is eternally a First Century Jew. We are and will be Americans, although, as children of God, so much more, as He was so very much more. Neuhaus also quoted St. Augustine: “It is beyond anything incredible that God should have willed the kingdoms of men, their dominations and their servitudes, to be outside the range of the laws of his providence.”
Like George Bailey in “It’s a Wonderful Life,” we are often blind to the full reality of our earthly role, but God has placed us in America for His glory. We don’t know or understand all the details yet about our significance as individuals are as a nation. But we can trust His ultimate purposes for us, and for our country, on its 238th birthday this July 4, are superlatively important and good.
Mark Tooley is president of the Institute on Religion and Democracy in Washington, D.C. and author of Methodism and Politics in the Twentieth Century. You can follow him on Twitter at @markdtooley.