On July 4th, Celebrate America, But Don’t Worship It

Image: JD Hancock via Flickr (CC BY 2.0).

On July 4th, Americans will wave our flags proudly, belt out our national songs triumphantly, and consume our barbecue and lemonade a little too freely. Why? Because we live in America, the best nation this planet has had the privilege to host. I’m grateful to be an American, and I enjoy the many freedoms and benefits that come with my citizenship. Nonetheless, our nation’s history has a track record for taking patriotism beyond gratitude and into nationalist idolatry. Many Americans through the years have harvested a superiority complex—a mentality and posture that has been harmful to our country and others. Patting our backs for our supreme eminence is not how we should be celebrating this holiday.

The belief that a nation singularly surpasses the standard and therefore must lead the world in politics, economics, culture, morality etc. is called exceptionalism. In our country, this mindset extends all the way back to our early settlers: the Puritans. You think America has got it great today? You should’ve seen it 400 years ago. It was paradise—no King, no Catholics, no Anglicans, no Baptists, and almost no sinners.

In 1630, John Winthrop (1588-1649), a Cambridge educated Puritan, led 700 intrepid souls across the Atlantic on the Arabella in hopes of establishing a “city set on a hill.” Winthrop became the governor of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, where he enforced standards of holiness on all the citizens. They left England in order to escape the worsening morals in government, the church, and society and lead righteous lives for the world to observe and imitate. Winthrop voices this mission in a tract he wrote on board the ship titled, “A Model of Christian Charity”:

For we must consider that we shall be as a city upon a hill. The eyes of all people are upon us. So that if we shall deal falsely with our God in this work we have undertaken, and so cause Him to withdraw His present help from us, we shall be made a story and a by-word through the world.

In other words: “No pressure guys, but you better not ruin this opportunity to maintain an angelic society that will save the world by its example.” If Winthrop were here today to see how his American project turned out, would he consider it a success? Not likely. He would probably gather another saintly cohort and set up a holy utopia elsewhere for modern day America to observe and emulate.

For more on why American exceptionalism is theologically flawed, see: “Humble Yourselves and Repent and God may–or may not–Heal Our Land

I sympathize with how serious Winthrop took his holiness before God and his genuine good will for others, desiring “to improve our lives to do more service to the Lord . . . that ourselves and posterity may be the better preserved from the common corruptions of this evil world.” However, even though his aim in separating from the corruptions of society was honorable, it was sorely misguided. As historian Edmund S. Morgan has pointed out, Winthrop failed to reconcile his exceptionalism with a central Puritan belief: original sin. As long as humans shape societies, there will be corruption, hurt, and moral failure. No human or society can claim inherent superiority over others, not even America .

Well, on that gloomy note, have a great Fourth of July!

Seriously, enjoy the holiday and celebrate all the great things that America stands for. But also take some time to reflect on the common humanity that we share with the rest of the world, and remember that we are no better than anyone else. The goal of the world is not to become like the America of today or of 400 years ago, but to be recreated anew into the Kingdom of God where true liberty and righteousness reign forever.

About Ryan Hoselton

Ryan Hoselton is working on a Master of Theology in Louisville, KY. He’s married to Jaclyn, his latina co-explorer in learning, travel, and exotic culinary research. He contributes blogs on church history at Historia Ecclesiastica. Twitter: @ryanhoselton

  • Esther O’Reilly

    Well, we’re still better than, say, China, in the sense that we don’t have a communist government. But give it a few years, that’ll change too…

  • rj_anderson

    I ended up liking this article, but as a Canadian reader, you almost lost me here: “…we live in America, the best nation this planet has had the privilege to host.” I’m guessing that sentence was intended ironically — or at least I hope so given the balanced tone of the rest of the article — but it doesn’t come across that way. Perhaps “We pride ourselves on living in the best nation…” or something of that sort, that makes clear it’s not intended as an objective statement?

  • Ryan Patrick Hoselton

    It’s certainly intended to be ironic. The goal was for American readers to think, “that’s darn right!” and then read the rest of the article and reconsider. Thanks for the comment

  • Esther O’Reilly

    I would say that America, as originally conceived by the founders, was probably about the best idea for a country ever. Just re-read the Bill of Rights alone! A lot of thought went into the checks and balances of the three branches, federal vs. state, etc. We also had (and still have to at least some extent) an economy built on free market capitalism, which gave our citizens amazing quality of life as compared with other countries. But the country has been worsened each time it moves away from the founders’ original vision for the balance of power. And starting with FDR, we also saw a decline as we moved away from a sound economic philosophy. Ultimately, the problem, as Ryan has noted, is human nature. Human beings are corruptible, and in time, even the greatest idea ever WILL unravel.

  • Zachery Oliver

    America is awesome, specifically because it is my country. And I say that completely and utterly lacking any irony.

  • http://www.christandpopculture.com/ Richard Clark

    Why?

  • Ryan Patrick Hoselton

    I agree, America is awesome. But it’s not perfect. And there are a lot of other awesome countries that don’t look anything like America.

  • Esther O’Reilly

    Hmmmm… gotta be honest, all the European countries I’m thinking of are even worse than America in those areas where America is already bad (decaying economy, nanny/police state, micro-management of perceived wrong-think and “hate” speech, euthanasia, homeschooling difficulties, etc.), the Middle Eastern countries are under Sharia Law, China is communist, Russia is run by Vlad Putin and his gang, the countries of Africa are starved and ravaged by disease and greedy leadership… I could go on but when you think about it America is kind of the best of a bad bunch, if only because it’s physically huge and is hence taking longer to crumble than, say, England.

  • Zachery Oliver

    Not really for any practical reason. More like “this is where I grew up, and I don’t really know anything else”.

    Perhaps I am weird, but I think patriotism, nationhood, and all those things are wrapped up into this experience we call life. I mean, God basically creates a nation out of nothing in the Bible, and the whole Hebrew Bible deals with that same nation. Surely, there’s something to the love of country, identification with it, etc. It’s the same reason the Jewish people called for a Messiah and waited so long, right? Of course, Jesus didn’t come to save one nation but all, but it does explain the way they identified with their country.

    Not to say America’s perfect, but I think by loving your country in the agape way (in spite of its fault), you learn something of how we as people love each other: as particulars, rather than abstract conceptions. I mean, I can tell somebody “love your neighbor”, but “love Steve next door who always plays the music too loud and complains about stuff”? That seems more relevant to human experience, and much tougher.

    Even moreso, Jesus loves us as individuals, and not as a great mass of humanity. John 11 tells the whole story of how God loves one guy enough to feel incredibly bad about it, crying, deeply moved, and then resurrects that same friend. That story gives you an inkling of how much God cares for the little sparrows.

    So yes, I do love my country just the same as other people love their country. But that’s a good thing, in my view.

  • Esther O’Reilly

    The final verse of “America the Beautiful” seems apt:

    O Beautiful for patriot dream
    That sees beyond the years
    Thine alabaster cities gleam,
    Undimmed by human tears!

  • wisdomhunter

    I love my country…it’s the kind of love I have for my father. He has many faults, some real admirable traits, but I couldn’t objectively call him “the best Dad ever.” But I love him because he’s my Dad. I don’t pretend that he’s perfect or even the best of a bad lot…I love him because he’s my Dad.

    I guess that why some people call it their “Fatherland.”

  • pdstafford

    Happy fourth of July to the Americans. As someone who lived in America, and has an American wife, I enjoy these types of celebrations!

    With a caveat. If you truly believe America is the best country on Earth, then I suggest you should travel more.

  • antimule

    >>> But the country has been worsened each time it moves away from the founders’ original vision for the balance of power. And starting with FDR, we also saw a decline as we moved away from a sound economic philosophy.<<>>Once upon a time, Christians ruled supreme in America. They had every chance to build decent roads, give every child an education, create public libraries, pay decent living wages, and keep the water clean. They did not. So God stepped in and used non-Christians to to the job for Him. Even now, what is stopping Christians from setting up a universal health care system? Every single regulatory or spending program that conservatives oppose exists because the free market failed to deliver or failed to live up to its responsibilities.<<<

  • Levedi

    Good comparison. I like to remember that loving my country and liking everything about it are not the same thing. Because I love my homeland, I want its best features to thrive and its worst to be discarded. I’ve traveled to several other countries and enjoyed them immensely. I’ve even thought about taking jobs in other countries and felt I could live in them happily. But I still feel a swell of joy when the border official hands me back my passport and says “welcome home.”

  • Esther O’Reilly

    Ummmm, no, it moved away from a sound economic philosophy because the people in charge had badly misguided ideas about what was going to help/harm the economy, so they enacted ill-advised government programs and policy based on those classic economic fallacies. For example, FDR created “jobs programs” that basically consisted of setting men to work doing pointless, useless activities. I know you’re probably a Keynesian so you’re not going to agree that the New Deal was a bone-headed exercise in clueless economics, but honestly, if you want to know where a lot of our economic woes got started, look for FDR’s fingerprints on the gun.

    Catholics are notoriously bad at economics, so I’m not at all surprised to see one advocating for leftist policies.

  • Jerry Lynch

    Esther, a sound economic policy? Do you remember the Great Depression that started in 1929? You want to blame FDR for that? Labor was not treated very well in this country for over a hundred and fifty years. The middle class and our real prosperity came with the advent of unions, which the previous “sound economy” was vehemently against to the point of murder. The things contributed with saving this country from its recent financial crisis were the social programs, expecially Social Security, and not the “sound economy” of Wall Street de-regulation.

  • antimule

    I don’t consider myself belonging to any school of economic and I consider them all bad although some are worse than the others. Libertarianism is basically Communism in reverse and almost as unrealistic.

    I believe that some rules are absolutely essential to have any sort of healthy economy and that the free market is easy to subvert if rules aren’t in place. Without the rules capitalism tends to cannibalize itself.

    For example, if you own roads and other infrastructure it would be possible for you to ban products from your competitor from ever reaching the market. So you can supply everyone with your inferior product. For this reason there exists (at least in Europe, and I presume in USA) various anti-monopoly laws to prevent someone who has monopoly in one market from using that monopoly to establish the monopoly in another market.

    What happens if a worker loses some body part due to faulty unregulated machinery? Sue the owner? How do you plan to prevent the owner form simply crushing any legal challenge due to superior resources?

    Free market has also absolutely failed to ever establish universal healthcare and I can see no reason why should anybody wait for the universal healthcare to materialize on it’s own. As Steve Dutch pointed out, Christians had every chance to establish universal health care but CHOSE not to. Since you haven’t even tried to give everyone healthcare, how can you complain about Obama? At least he is trying.

    So all in all, my economic view can be summed up as ‘free market, unless proven otherwise’. Meaning that I am pro free market but with regulation in industries that have proven that they cannot be trusted or where free market has repeatedly proven that it doesn’t get desired results (eg healthcare).

  • Jerry Lynch

    If the Declaration of Independence had been written for Blacks, women, Native Americans, and non-property holding Whites, it would have been truly grand. Even though it took over a hundred years, we eventually got over such exclusivity and repression. It is funny how so many Conservatives view demythifying our past as revisionist history, just liberal bunk or commie propaganda. Bachman saying the Founding Fathers worked tirelessly to free the slaves is the America they see.

    As Christians, we are “citizens of heaven”: this is literal, not figurative. We are “separated out” by God to serve the Lost and Needy, called to be foreigners, aliens, and strangers in all lands. Ambassadors of the kingdom of God, and in that service and allegiance alone. We submit to the governing authorities out of love of neighbor–and any country would be far, far better served out of this love of neighbor than patriotism for a particular nation.

    Romans13 says that any rebellion against the “governing authorities” is damning: what was the American Revolution? For all those who lament where this country has gone and want to blame this or that group, remember we are to know a tree by its fruits.

  • Esther O’Reilly

    Maybe socialized medicine isn’t practical or sustainable in the long-term. Have you ever considered that possibility? England has been desperately crippled by it and America is eager to catch up.

  • Esther O’Reilly

    The Great Depression happened on the principle that crud happens. But FDR’s policies definitely made things worse.

    Whatever noble motives unions may have had to begin with, the union machine has now evolved into an instrument of oppression and bullying in its own right.

  • antimule

    Every country in the world that I know of spends less on healthcare than USA as portion of GDP. USA is the LEAST efficient. If England’s healthcare is about to collapse, that probably has more to do with them completely abandoning manufacturing and relying too much on financial sector. Germany seems fine.

    So what is your plan for people who don’t have health care now in USA?

  • Esther O’Reilly

    That’s a really vague question. You’d have to get way more specific before I could even begin to offer specific answers. However, my guiding principle is that no matter what problem there is in the world, there are never any solutions. There are only tradeoffs and compromises. (HT: Thomas Sowell, whose books I can’t recommend highly enough.) That’s not to say that some systems aren’t inherently superior to others. However, nothing is going to magically fix everything.

  • antimule

    If other countries get more out of their healthcare (ie live longer) and pay less (as portion of GDP) then why isn’t universal healthcare one of those tradeoffs? How do you know that Obamacare isn’t God’s punishment for your lack of stewardship?

  • Esther O’Reilly

    Even though no system is magically perfect, some are certain to fail. Socialized medicine is predicated on certain basically flawed economic assumptions that will guarantee disaster in the long run.

  • antimule

    >>>Socialized medicine is predicated on certain basically flawed economic assumptions that will guarantee disaster in the long run.<<<

    And the evidence that is testable in this universe (ie. not only in your head) is…. ? Besides, American system looks a lot more like a disaster right now, at least to us who don't have direct uplink to hyperspace.

  • Esther O’Reilly

    Doctor/medicine shortages and a decrease in quality of care. England is a prime example of both. And of course America looks like a disaster NOW, because of expanding big government and social programs!

    Now honestly, you seem kind of obsessed with getting into economic debates, and I think this one has devolved into tedium pretty quickly. So out of mercy for the folks here at CAPC, and for both our time’s sake, let’s wish each other a happy 4th and agree to disagree.

  • antimule

    Fine. Happy 4th.

    Maybe I am kinda obsessed but I tend to believe that extremism is going to eventually destroy American Christianity but since we will never agree what the extremism is, there is no point going on.

  • Susan_G1

    It seems appropriate to bring in at this point the Mayflower Compact, the document between the Separatists and the Strangers, which was hard fought for a number of days, during which no man was allowed ashore until the Christians and the Others agreed on a form of government acceptable to all. Written in part by Bradford, it outlined, interestingly, not a theocracy but a kind of republic under the Monarchy.

    His idealism was evident in his writings. It is inspirational to read Of Plimoth Plantation.

    We have wandered far from the beacon on the hill which he envisioned. I believe we have enough to be proud of in America, but much to repent of. I believe we need to start seeing ourselves as part of a global community now, not prideful leaders of the free world.

  • Jerry Lynch

    If the Declaration of Independence had been written for Blacks, women, Native Americans, and non-property holding Whites, it would have been truly grand. Even though it took over a hundred years, we eventually got over such exclusivity and repression. It is funny how so many Conservatives view demythifying our past as revisionist history, just liberal bunk or commie propaganda. Bachman saying the Founding Fathers worked tirelessly to free the slaves is the America they see.

    As Christians, we are “citizens of heaven”: this is literal, not figurative. We are “separated out” by God to serve the Lost and Needy, called to be foreigners, aliens, and strangers in all lands. Ambassadors of the kingdom of God, and in that service and allegiance alone. We submit to the governing authorities out of love of neighbor–and any country would be far, far better served out of this love of neighbor than patriotism for a particular nation.

    Romans13 says that any rebellion against the “governing authorities” is damning: what was the American Revolution? For all those who lament where this country has gone and want to blame this or that group, remember we are to know a tree by its fruits.

  • Esther O’Reilly

    Okay, someone must really be obsessive to “dislike” “America the Beautiful.” Just sayin’. ;-)

  • wisdomhunter

    Not exactly sure why this was a reply to my post–seems somewhat non-sequeter–but I don’t disagree with what you posted.

    Well, one slight disagreement: I think you’re confusing “governing authorities” with “country.” One’s nation is not the same as one’s government. I submit to the governing authorities because God commands me to do so; I love my country because I love my neighbor.

  • Jerry Lynch

    Sorry, not sure how it got where it did. While I’m here, doesn’t a country include government and citizens? And aren’t neighbors without borders?

  • wisdomhunter

    Jerry, the idea of the nation-state is relatively modern. A nation’s government is but one aspect of a nation. Example: Tibet is a nation, with a distinct ethnicity, religion and culture; however, it has an externally imposed government that did not arise from within. A Christian in Tibet may love his homeland–it’s language, music, food, cultural entertainments, etc–and, while perhaps mourning a lack of independence, tolerate being ruled from Bejing.

    There are far more nations in this world than political states…and often, a natural national grouping of people is divided into two or more states. For example, there might be some Tajiks in Afghanistan, but many more in Tajikstan; the Afghani Tajiks may be under the Afghan government, but they still probably have more in common with their Tajik relatives in Tajikstan.

    As far as the Christian in all of this: our loyalty is first and last to God. But we do not suddenly become some kind of ethnic-less creatures, but God has called us to serve Him with the cultural backgrounds we have. Outside of certain extreme groups, if I am called while the rest of my family remains pagan, I am not to disown them and live purely apart from them–though it may lead to division, oppression and conflict, especially if our pagan families expect us to continue practices which conflict with God’s commands.

    Sorry for rambling, but hopefully I’m describing my view adequately for you to see where I’m coming from.

  • wisdomhunter

    Agreed. The rest if the world is far from being some kind of hellhole. Even in the so-called “third world” there is much beauty and many people led happy, fulfilled lives and don’t pine away thinking that everything would be perfect if their country was more like the United States.

  • wisdomhunter

    One more thing, Jerry…while it is true that slavery was and is completely indefensible as practiced in America, keep in mind that between the end of the Revolution and 1810, 75 percent of African slaves were freed in the Northern States, and by 1840, virtually all northern people of African descent were free. Yes, at the Federal level and in the South the horrible practice of chattel slavery continued and even expanded (especially after 1810 with the invention of the cotton gin); but many, many of our founders saw the complete incompatibility of slavery and a “free” society.

    Please note: I am NOT trying to say that this excuses the national crime of slavery; but it wasn’t as if the United States suddenly gained a conscience shortly before the Civil War. But much of the United States had freedom before the UK (for example) which abolished it in 1833. So while it is fair–and necessary–to criticize the US for not having addressed this evil fully from its inception, I think that we need to understand the evolution of freedom in the country and the rest of the world. For, in the end, every human effort is bound to be terribly imperfect.

  • Esther O’Reilly

    And yet, I think one can recognize the beautiful resilience of the human spirit while still acknowledging that it’s a terrible tragedy for there to be countries where people are suffering so much. It’s like a disabled person who’s very courageous and inspiring. We can admire the person while grieving the fact that he has such a crushing disability. So praise people in impoverished third-world countries for their courage, by all means, but don’t praise the broken, corrupt systems that placed them in such desperate circumstances to begin with.

  • Dimitri

    I never really did like the Puritans, though I admit that dislike stemmed from my school days reading The Crucible and The Scarlet Letter. I know the Puritans were not stereotypically prudish, black-and-white clothing and all witch-hunting. They have done good things, especially opening public schools, but they had a theology that was so strict, so harsh, and so severe. They were frightening and intrinsically anti-art.

  • Susan_G1

    wh, the Greek city-states were nation states. How modern are you talking?

  • Ryan Hite

    The problem with patriotism is that, at least here in America, it creates a sense of self-centeredness that is not good for an increasingly globalizes world in which we are at the top. There are some admirable traits to being an American, but there are also some that are not so memorable. We tend to glorify things that are not so admirable.
    http://www.ryanjhite.com

  • Jerry Lynch

    The part that I wanted to emphasize was being “separated out.” We cannot function optinmally for God as humble servants to all the lost and needy if we have any worldly entangements, such as patriotism for a particular country. Love is for God and people (and maybe beer and football but that’s it).

    Whatever we enjoy about the country in which we dwell it is divine largesse, not a gift from the state. The only real freedom comes in Christ, not by military might, and to that freedom we are willing slaves. As Christians, we have no rights but simply the great privilege and opportunity to serve others and God. The “unalienable rights” stated in the Declaration of Independence, that “of life, liberty, and the prusuit of happiness,” is a worldly proclamation and not a godly one; they could even be considered pagan.

    Christians are not to pursue happiness but to rest in the peace of the lord. Our life is not ours; it belongs to Christ. And liberty comes in allowing ourselves to be, again, “separated out” for God’s purposes, not our own. Believing these are entitlements we deserve for ourselves in this life is to be at enmity with God.

  • Jerry Lynch

    Some Scripture to consider:

    “This people I have formed for Myself; they shall declare MY glory.” Isaiah43:21

    “In ALL things may God be glorified.” 1Peter4:11

    “Love not the world, neither the things that are in the world. If any man loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him. 1John2:15

    “You shall worship the Lord your God, and him ONLY shall you serve” (Deuteronomy 6:13-15; Matthew 4:10).

    “Our citizenship is in heaven.” Philippians3:20


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