Today marks the 238th birthday of the most improbable and unique social, political, and cultural experiment in human history. I do not believe this experiment (I speak, of course, of the United States of America), will last forever; in fact, I suspect (and I sincerely hope that I am wrong) that we are closer to its end than we are from its beginning. Many like to say that America's brightest days are ahead. While I strive and work toward that end, it can hardly be doubted that she is facing crisis on every side and within. It is a crisis of confidence and self-doubt: insecurity in her ideals, her goodness, her leadership, her responsibilities, and her exceptionalism.
As water does not seem very remarkable to fish, it seems that America is not all that remarkable for Americans. Years ago I was talking with a friend from Northern Ireland, a country famously wracked with strife and violence. He was living Stateside at the time, and he marveled to me how unaware Americans are that their nation is one of a kind, unique... exceptional. It is the first civil society built entirely without bonds of blood. Americans are not a race. It is a society built with no attention to geography. Her peoples did not band together because they shared the same plot of ground, unless you want to call a vast continent the "same plot of ground." It is a society not built on class distinctions. America has no Lords and Ladies, Dukes, Dutchesses, or "Your Majesties."
It is a society wholly built by a creed. "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, and are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, among these are Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of happiness."
Setting biblical literature to the side, Thomas Jefferson's little sentence has arguably done more to shape the world than any other. It birthed America and her creed. While she has had dark and bloody struggles to live up to this ideal (a Civil War, for instance), this sentence nevertheless unleashed a period of unprecedented human flourishing, innovation, and prosperity. And not simply for Americans, but for the world at large. People like Howard Zinn or Bill Ayers think America became a superpower by throwing its weight around the world and abusing others. It seems to me the reality is that America became a superpower simply because she truly became a superpower. There was little artifice involved. Her freedoms provided societal space for innovation and invention, risk-taking, and free associations, the result of which has been material prosperity and wealth of which King Solomon never dreamed.
I cling, at best, to the bottom rung of "middle class" in America. Yet the comforts of my life and home surpass the tyrants of old: kings, princes, and emperors alike.
I owe it all, of course, to God. But in space and time God used a remarkable little creed (not coincidentally, one that acknowledged Him). I owe it, humanly speaking, to a people without race or geography or class in common, holding to and living out that creed in their lives and endeavors.
America's crisis of confidence is nothing less than a crisis of her creed. America has flourished for 238 years because she shared a widespread consensus of belief and "lived experience." Her people believed it self-evident that God, not governments, is the foundation of human dignity and freedom. The results on any measurement have been unmistakable, and unmistakably good. But that consensus of belief and lived experience is fragmenting before our eyes. Americans have been polarized before, without a doubt. But the polarization they now experience seems to me of a deeper sort: a rift between alternate views of reality itself. She began, frankly, as a diverse yet Theocentric people, self-evidently endowed, as they saw it, by their Creator. She no longer believes that anything is self-evident, and such transcendent ideals she now banishes from polite society. But when God is dead or dismissed, and everything is up for grabs, and the link to transcendence is severed, all that remains is the disenchanted and despairing world of raw political calculation, Machiavellian machinations, and a lust for power. A world where Game of Thrones is not a fantasy, but reality.
America is not God. She is not his "chosen" one. But she has been a unique gift of God for human civilization. I thank God for her. She doubts her ideals, her goodness, her leadership, her responsibilities, and her exceptionalism at her peril.