“As it is, they desire a better country, that is, a heavenly one. Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God; indeed, he has prepared a city for them.” Hebrews 11:16
As a participant in the civic life of the American republic, you might say I had an early start. I was six years old in the fall of 1984, when Ronald Reagan was running for his second term against Walter Mondale. I had read all about it in The Mini Page, a short supplement for kids that ran in our Sunday paper.
The Mini Page said that kids should get involved, making posters for their favorite candidates and participating in marches and rallies in their local communities, and I was ready for action. My mother found some poster board for me, some red and blue streamers, a yardstick, and some tape. One weekday afternoon in late October, I conducted what was probably the only political rally in the history of Big Spring, Maryland.
It was a one-man show, with my little brothers as the forced spectators. I made the circuit of the neighborhood, turning at the old train depot, walking by the grain elevator, hanging a right at Mrs. Lee’s sweetcorn patch. I had to turn around and retrace my steps when I got to Big Spring Road, because we weren’t allowed to walk on the two-lane road without an adult.
My poster’s slogan was simple, “Vote for Ronald Reagan, He’s the President.” This choice did not lie in a considered opinion about trickle-down economics or nuclear deterrence, nor was it particularly encouraged by my parents, whose only political involvement was a sign in our front yard for my great uncle’s school board campaign.
Really I backed Reagan because he was already the president — and who did this Mondale man think he was, trying to take away the president’s job? I found the whole idea of regime change profoundly offensive. As Allison points out, this is not actually the political ideology of a Republican, but a monarchist.
Looking back on it now, it’s not an altogether bad thing for a child from a happy home to think this way. I believed Ronald Reagan was the best possible president in exactly the same way that I believed my father was the strongest man in the world, that no one could play the organ more beautifully than my mother, that my grandmother made the world’s best pies, and that there was no better place to live than Big Spring, Maryland.
I loved the features of the world given to me precisely because they were mine, because I belonged to them. There was gratitude and that, and contentment, maybe even an implicit trust that God had given to me what was best for me.
I grew up as a patriotic child. We flew the flag on our front porch, and I knew all the words to the Battle Hymn of the Republic and “You’re a Grand Old Flag.” My parents took us to see Mount Vernon, and Gettysburg, and the Liberty Bell, and in the last few weeks of the school year, when it’s hard for kids to sit still, my grade school teachers would bring out mid-century filmstrips, which told the stories of all those dashing heroes of American history, Paul Revere, Daniel Boone, and the defenders of the Alamo. We were assured, in many small ways, that to be an American was a very good thing indeed.
The word patriotism, of course, comes from the Latin, patria, the fatherland, and in my case, that’s pretty much what it was. I played in churchyards where my ancestors were buried since before this part of the world was the United States, and we swam in the same creeks they had, hunted in the same woods. This country was our common inheritance, its laws and customs bound us together in a common way of life across the generations.
We love our countries in a way that is most like the way we love our families. We honor and respect them because they have come before us, and given us blessings we do not deserve. We stand by them, and care for them in their time of need. We defend them when they are unfairly criticized or attacked.
But in time, most of us come to realize that our parents are not quite as perfect as we once thought they were, and that the people of our country have made serious mistakes from time to time. The revolution had its heroes, but the loyalists were brutally expunged. The pioneers were brave, but sometimes remarkably cruel and underhanded their dealing with the native people of this land. And always before us is the bitter tragedy of slavery and the racism that justified it, with its seemingly ineradicable legacy.
As a student, I grappled with these facts, trying to understand the story of my nation, and as I traveled to other places and learned the stories beloved by their people, I learned to sift and weigh, and sometimes even to break old habits.
I remember how troubled I was as a 20-year-old student in Berlin to hear a German friend remark on how loudly the Americans all speak, acting as if whatever they say is most important. Over the next month, I practiced speaking more softly, so I wouldn’t stand out in a gathering, so I wouldn’t be the ugly, self-consumed American. If I’d have known that I was destined to spend the remainder of my life trying to speak to people with hearing problems in buildings with bad acoustics, I might have chosen a different self-improvement project.
Over the last two years we’ve been engaged in an ugly squabble in our cultural life about the meaning of American history. The 1619 Project, launched by The New York Times to commemorate the 400th anniversary of slavery in this land claims that American cultural identity is defined by this original sin. The project’s coordinator, Nikole Hannah-Jones won a Pulitzer Prize for it, and — this week — a tenure-track professorship at the University of North Carolina. The 1619 Project argues that when we view American history from the perspective of those brought here against their will, we see recurrent patterns of poisonous and violent racism woven into many of our national institutions.
The 1619 Project has had many admirers, and its work has been expanded by other historical writers and cultural commentators. But it has also been fiercely criticized most notably by former President Trump, who set up a rival 1776 Commission, chaired by Hillsdale College’s Larry Arn.
The 1776 Commission says that the fundamental event in our history is the one we celebrate this weekend. It repeats the heroic tale of American history I learned as a young boy: pilgrims seeking freedom of worship, patriots fighting for liberty from tyranny, ever broadening opportunities and justice for all. America: the world’s best possible country.
So, who’s right? we ask. Is America to be judged by its high ideals and stunning successes, or by its crudest passions and repeated failures? Maybe I am a hopeless fence-rider, but could we not grant that both stories are needed to understand and love our nation?
Surely, our American system of government anticipated both heroic achievement and shocking failure, because it was established on idealistic moral principles, instead of a common ancestry, language, or religion. America is, in essence, about equal treatment under the law, liberty of conscience, fair representation, the opportunity to succeed by intelligence and hard work.
No nation has ever consistently lived up to such ideals, and our system of government was intended from the start to be self-correcting, within bounds. National triumphs and ideals are rightly celebrated, as signs of hope and reasons for thanksgiving. But our faith is also honest about the sinful tendencies of human nature. It should not surprise us that our ancestors were guilty of evil deeds, because we know the darkness in our own hearts. Truthful criticism and effort at reform need not be disloyal, but can reflect the truth that our country is, by its own admission, always a work in progress.
I would hope that Christians are especially well positioned to help the combatants in this particular struggle find some common ground. The Scriptures command us to honor and pray for those given authority over us, and to work for the welfare of the community in which God has placed us.
Love of one’s homeland and civic allegiance is not a prominent theme in the Bible, but it does surface from time to time — say in Joseph’s request to be buried in the tomb of his fathers or Paul’s pride in his Roman citizenship. It is a kind of natural piety, springing from our gratitude to God for the life he has given us, and the responsibilities we bear toward our neighbors.
But there are limits to the kind of allegiance our homeland can demand from us, and it’s a blessing that our country specifically recuses itself from defining the ultimate object of our worship. Our true citizenship, as today’s well-chosen epistle lesson wisely reminds us, is not here on earth, but in heaven.
America is not the world’s worst society, but it’s not the best, either. The purple mountain majesties and the fruited plain cannot, ultimately, compare with the city whose maker and builder is God, whose light is the Lamb. We strive to live by that city’s laws, for we are ultimately accountable at its bar. Our highest loyalty, even above what we rightly owe our families and our homelands, is to its good, building up its purposes here on earth.
Christians should be better citizens for such divided loyalty, patriots who love their homeland rightly by not loving it above all else. In a time when we Americans can hardly talk about anything important without a fight breaking out, we should be able to acknowledge our nation’s successes and its failures, and to summon our fellow citizens to the vital work of binding up our wounds and building anew.
The Rev. Mark Michael is editor of The Living Word.