Finding an America Worth Celebrating

My relationship with the Fourth of July has become a little strained lately.

Some of that is the growing discomfort I have with the way patriotism and certain American values tend to be equated with Christianity by many people of faith – as if Jesus roamed the hills of first-century Palestine extolling the virtues of free-market capitalism and individual liberty.

Some of it is the knowledge that for many, if not most, people, American independence was a theory, not a reality. It’s difficult to unreservedly wave the red, white and blue when those colors were used to enslave, subjugate and slaughter.

And some of it is my own faith journey. Why do we pledge allegiance to a flag when that flag is used in ways that are most certainly antithetical to the kingdom to which we owe our true loyalty? Would I really fight and kill for a cause with which I did not agree? Why do we sing a National Anthem that celebrates American warfare and violence above all other qualities? Does not our true king abhor violence?

Yet America has done incredible things to relieve people’s suffering, and despite the nation’s ongoing difficulties with race and xenophobia, she is far less bloodthirsty and far more tolerant than even 50 years ago.

And this is the thing worth celebrating about the American republic. Not the mythology of the founders, who were no more human than we were and enshrined in their documents, speeches and letters embarrassing sentiments about pretty much anyone who wasn’t wealthy, white and male. Not the too-readily available notion of imperialism that fueled – and continues to fuel – our rapacious destruction of both land and people. Not the insidious theology of Calvinistic puritanism that has led to outrageous justifications for inaction and hostility toward the poor.

The thing worth celebrating about America is that she continues to strive for the ideals of her founders – even and especially beyond what the founders themselves would have envisioned.

Take, for example, this quote I found yesterday from my favorite founder, John Adams, in a letter he wrote on the eve of American independence arguing against the notion of universal suffrage for the impending nation:

Depend upon it, sir, it is dangerous to open so fruitful a source of controversy and altercation, as would be opened by attempting to alter the qualifications of voters. There will be no end of it. New claims will arise. Women will demand a vote. Lads from 12 to 21 will think their rights not enough attended to, and every man, who has not a farthing, will demand an equal voice with any other in all acts of state. It tends to confound and destroy all distinctions, and prostrate all ranks, to one common level.

Yet here we are today. Women can vote. Eighteen-year-olds can vote. Renters and the homeless can vote. Not mentioned in the letter but no less disenfranchised for more than a century, African Americans and other minorities can vote. Would anyone say John Adams’ vision was more American than the reality born from his vision? Of course not. Adams could never have imagined a world in which the genders, all races and both rich and poor were treated equally under the law (in practice is another question altogether), but what he did imagine led inevitably to that outcome.

And that’s where I get to some level of comfort with all of the celebrations around July 4. Because the ideal of America is worth celebrating: primarily the notion of justice for all – including the poor, including the alien – which gives voice to the voiceless and inexorably limits further the ground given over to oppression. The United States has constantly, if fitfully, progressed toward that ideal.

Further, the perfectly achieved realization of this ideal is something Christians can and should participate in bringing about – worshipping as we do a God whose heart lies closest to the poor, marginalized and oppressed. For all of the faults we can reasonably and legitimately find with the actions taken through American imperialism and civic religionism over the past 236 years, the American ideal remains lofty and laudable.

This July 4, I celebrated that ideal and prayed that we would progress even further toward it in America’s 237th year.

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