Heading into the thick of the 2016 presidential campaign season, we’ve heard plenty from the candidates about the meaning and purpose of America. Donald Trump, to take an especially colorful example, is fond of issuing forceful, if somewhat vague, promises to “make America great again.”
Which implies, of course, that America has been great in the past—and that, by one reckoning or another, it ought to be great once more. But even that leaves many questions unanswered. What does it mean for a nation to be great? And is national greatness—even if we could agree on a consensus definition—really something to be prized?
It won’t surprise anyone familiar with our campaign-season squabbles—much less our fractious, rambunctious national history—that the answers to these questions are anything but settled and uncontroversial. As a guide through this tangle of issues, we’re fortunate to have John D. Wilsey, author of an excellent new study called American Exceptionalism and Civil Religion: Reassessing the History of an Idea. Wilsey, who teaches history and apologetics at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, asks how faithful Christians can think through the claims—popular throughout our history—that America is an “exceptional” nation, blessed by God and given a unique role in to play in world affairs.
God and America
At least one conclusion is clear: most citizens affirm some kind of relationship between God and America. Polling numbers show that even today, in a nation wracked by the forces of globalism, big banks, terror plots, gun violence, and racial tensions—not to mention the effects of seemingly irreversible climate change—roughly 80 percent of Americans agree that our nation possesses a “unique character” that makes it “the greatest country in the world.”
Meanwhile, academic historians have fulminated for decades over what appears to them as grossly simplistic and largely unwarranted praise. What about slavery, racial injustice, genocide against Native Americans, imperial adventuring, and other atrocities? Consider how antebellum American Christians could so easily endorse not only the “manifest destiny” of national expansion, but also the rapid spread of slavery, all while they memorized the Sermon on the Mount.
Even in a nation renowned for its patriotism, stinging critiques can pay dividends on the campaign trail. Democrat Bernie Sanders memorably calls for breaking up Wall Street’s “casino culture.” Even Trump, presumably on the right, is deeply critical of America’s standing in the world. (Recall that in a recent Republican debate, he blasted the architects of the Iraq War for leaving the Middle East a “total and complete mess.”) Whatever their differing styles and emphases, Sanders and Trump pose roughly the same questions: How can any sane citizen consider this the greatest nation when a significant minority of our citizens is mired in economic uncertainty? When the middle class is continually slammed by the fraudulent practices of bankers, pharmaceutical companies, and Pentagon powerbrokers?