What does it mean to be an American? We’ve heard a lot over the past several months about making America great again or about how America is already great as is, but what does that really mean? What defines us as a nation? From the very start, we have been a people defined more by a quest for individual freedom than the commitment to something bigger than ourselves, and it seems like that might be catching up to us.
The Puritans who first colonized the New World, for example, came mostly in pursuit of religious freedom. However, their understanding of that principle was more the freedom to practice their faith as they wanted than the kind of liberty that we hold so dear today. In truth, the Puritans were often even more dogmatic and legalistic about their faith than the Anglican church they fled. And while there were some who sought true liberty of conscience when it came to the practice of faith, most of the colonies continued to have official churches that persecuted dissenters even in the years following the Revolutionary War. It wasn’t until the Bill of Rights was enacted in 1791 that the freedom of religion we possess today became a recognized part of our national identity.
Even then, however, the liberty we pursued was often centered on the idea that others did not possess the right to tell us how to live. The political freedom we sought in the decades leading up to that first war with Britain functioned much that way. In the Declaration of Independence, Thomas Jefferson wrote of “certain unalienable Rights” that, if violated, were grounds for a people “to institute new Government,” one that would protect those privileges. Essentially, the idea that a king three thousand miles away had the authority to tell us how to live was considered grounds for rebellion.
My purpose today is not to question the validity of those assumptions or to minimize the importance of liberty and freedom. Jefferson was correct in writing that our Creator has granted each of us a certain level of individual value that is worth protecting. However, the founding fathers knew that those values alone would prove insufficient unless they were supported by a virtuous people. Even though most of the architects of our nation were Deists who questioned the divinity of Christ, they held the moral principles of his teachings in high regard.
For them, Judeo-Christian virtue was an essential part of making our nation viable. They understood that when people begin to make themselves the ultimate end of their lives, the result was division and strife. That’s what played out across the first decade of our nation’s existence when Washington, in looking at a country that had already begun to tear itself apart, said that “Virtue, I fear, has, in a great degree, taken its departure from our land.”
But moral decay didn’t happen because of problems with the government, with immigrants, or because of one party’s political views. It happened because Christians weren’t acting like Christians. The church had become so concerned with protecting its authority and place in the world that God’s people lost sight of their mission. Once the American people lost their common enemy in Britain, there wasn’t anything else to unite them, and a downward spiral began that didn’t really halt until the Second Great Awakening ten years later.
Haven’t we seen the same thing in our culture today? Our nation has seldom been as united as in the months following 9/11 when, as a people, we once again shared a common enemy. Once the fervor and outrage began to subside, however, we’ve grown steadily apart to the point that we’re now experiencing one of the most vitriolic and divisive presidential races in quite some time. Could the solution once again be for God’s people to stop focusing on the perceived threats we’re facing and, instead, concern themselves with making sure that their lives are right with the Lord?
Our nation wasn’t designed to function apart from the moral virtues of Christ. As Americans, the values we hold most dear will inevitably lead to division and strife unless they are checked by a moral system that can provide a solid foundation on which those values can stand. But we can’t expect non-Christians to live with those virtues unless we do first. Are you doing your part today?