If you watched last night’s debate, you may have caught some pretty bold descriptions of our nation by both our President and Governor Romney. John Piper, pastor of Bethlehem Baptist Church in Minneapolis, noticed and tweeted:
Obama: America, the only indispensable nation. Romney: America, the hope of the earth. This does focus our prayers for them.
We’ve been talking a good bit about “American exceptionalism” lately here at Christ and Pop Culture. We have discussed how America is often described by evangelicals as a “Christian nation” and how some Christians think of America as God’s new chosen nation in place of Israel.
I have tried to encourage an honest look at our nation’s religious landscape and heritage and what that means about the USA’s place in the larger world. I recently wrote about this with regard to the flack President Obama got for “bowing” to King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia:
American exceptionalism is antithetical to the Christian’s heavenly citizenship. So as a Christian, I cannot believe in American exceptionalism because America and its leaders, just like every other country, is made up of people who make good and bad decisions. I love my country but I won’t pretend that its foreign policy has been a force of categorical good in the world. Such an assumption would be foolish.
This isn’t to say that America isn’t a great nation–I think it is. I count it a tremendous blessing to have been born and raised here. As Peter Leithart said in a recent interview with the Gospel Coalition’s Trevin Wax, I believe that America is exceptional in many ways:
- It had a unique founding;
- it is one of the most deeply Christian nations that has ever existed;
- it is of course fabulously wealthy and powerful;
- its political and economic system have enabled human creativity and ingenuity to be unleashed as never before in human history.
- I am grateful for America’s tradition of hospitality to aliens from all over the world, and our real assistance to the poor and oppressed.
Notice that Leithart says America “is one of the most deeply Christian nations.” If you read the rest of the interview, I think you will see that he says this because America cannot rightly be deemed a fully evangelical Christian nation either in its founding or its current religious/theological landscape.
What I find interesting about President Obama and Governor Romney’s descriptions of America is that they come from both a mainline protestant who has been honest about beliefs that fall outside of evangelicalism, and a mormon. In other words, this idea that America is “God’s chosen nation” is not limited to evangelicals.
There is no doubt in my mind that both Romney and Obama described America in such religious and exceptionalist terms because they are trying to win the election. As a nation we want to believe that we are special–a source of categorical good in the world. We want to believe that we are the greatest nation in the world, but more than that, that we are making the world a better place.
I won’t pretend to have the education, the wisdom, or the foresight to weigh in on whether or not America has done more good or ill for the world at large. I love America and so I would like to think that we have been a source of good. I recognize, however, that affirming such a beliefs would require overlooking some of the more pernicious aspects of American history (for example: The Trail of Tears or Segregation).
To be perfectly honest, answering whether America is indispensable and the only hope for the earth, is not something any human being has the authority or insight to accurately suss out. The earth is the Lord’s and the fullness thereof (Ps. 24:1), and He made it for his glory (Isa. 43:7) and He alone is truly wise (Romans 16:27).
So I am reminded of the Apostle Paul’s warning to the church at Rome not to “think more highly of [themselves] than [they] ought to think” but rather to think with “sober judgement” (Romans 12:3). Paul was speaking to Christians in a local church but I think it applies to us as citizens of the United States. Of course we think America is special, we live here and in many ways it is special. But as to whether America is special in the eyes of God, that seems like something we should leave up to God. We can, however, say with certainty that God’s intentions for the world and Christ’s Kingdom extends to all nations (Gen. 12:1-3; Matthew 28:18-20).
My concerns about such glowing descriptions of America is that they assume things about our nation that may or may not be true. And such assumptions keep us from looking at the state of our union with sober judgement and consequently from seeing our weaknesses and failures. As Christians, we ought to hope that America would be a source of good in the world. But it is the height of hubris to assume that we are the greatest nation in the world. As Christians, we ought to be concerned primarily with God’s judgments over and against the judgments of others. And further, we should be very careful in presuming to speak for Him.
If this election has revealed anything about the state of our union, perhaps it is that we currently find ourselves more divided than ever before. Both sides seem to grasp our nations greatest challenges but neither seem particularly poised to address them. Perhaps this is because we keep judging ourselves poorly.