FOURTH OF JULY: America, the exceptional nation
NASHVILLE, Tenn. (BP)--America has been blessed by God in unique ways -- we are not just another country, but neither are we God's special people. I do not believe that America is God's chosen nation. God established one chosen nation and people: the Jews. We are not the new Israel. We do not have "God on our side." We are not God's gift to the world.
America does not have a special claim on God. Millions of Americans do, however, believe God has a special claim on them -- and their country.
America has been blessed in manifold ways. When you look at our resources, our protection by two oceans, our standard of living, can you argue that America has not been uniquely and providentially blessed? The natural resources that lie within the confines of our borders are without parallel anywhere in the world: not just rich, arable land, but vast resources of iron, coal, and oil under the ground. We didn't put them there; we were just led to the place where they were.
We have had the opportunity to enjoy them and to benefit people around the world with them. Perhaps the most fertile land on the planet is our Great Plains.
We have become the breadbasket for the world. We feed much of the world's population, in part because we are good farmers, but also because we believe in private ownership of land and property. Can you name a nation that in any way can claim to have been the recipient of God's unearned blessings to the measure that we have been?
We enjoy freedoms that most of us have not risked our lives to establish, protect or preserve. All of us, unless we are immigrants to this country, have by the providence of birth been bequeathed an incredible legacy. Over the last two and a half centuries, there has been no other country in the world within which such a high percentage of the population has had the guaranteed freedoms we possess: freedom of speech, freedom of worship, freedom of assembly. We have guaranteed freedoms in our Constitution that even Canadians and Britons don't have.
There was either a fortuitous or a providential set of circumstances in the development and rise of this nation. Since I'm a Christian, I believe in providence more than fortune. I believe that it was a uniquely providential set of circumstances that allowed the flourishing of this triumph of freedom and the dignity of human beings. It certainly didn't happen that way in the French Revolution, and I believe it is no coincidence that the philosophy and convictions fueling that revolution were not based on a transcendent divine authority. They were based in human reason (or what the revolutionaries mistook for reason) alone, and the upheaval quickly degenerated into a maelstrom of chaos, violence, and power struggles.
The Founding Fathers of the American Revolution, by contrast, affirmed that human rights are not mere human constructions, but are unalienable rights conferred by God. Government could not create those rights; all it could do was recognize them and support them. This idea of divinely ordained rights had not taken root anywhere else in the world. It was a new and unique concept.
Because it has been around our whole life as a nation, we tend to take it for granted.
From the richness of our undeserved legacy comes obligation. If we have been given much, we are obligated to give much to others. If we love our neighbors as ourselves, we will seek not only to preserve and protect our liberties, but to assist others in their efforts to attain these same liberties.
If America's legacy is freedom, some ask, then why is American history built on the back of subjugated races such as African-Americans and Native Americans?
Belief in God had a lot to do with bringing an end to the evils of slavery -- and, a century later, correcting much of its lingering effect through the biblical ideals that drove the Civil Rights movement.
Unfortunately, misuse of Scripture had a lot to do with perpetuating the institution of slavery, and it also played a role in our unconscionable treatment of Native Americans. This in no way excuses our abhorrent treatment of Native Americans and our culpability in the severe cultural problems they have suffered since.
America has failed at key points to live up to our ideals of liberty and justice for all human beings. We have worked to rectify our failings; however, we have sometimes disagreed on how to do so. We need not make perfection the enemy of the good. We fought a terrible war on our own soil to overcome the horrors of slavery. I don't see many minorities emigrating to a better life elsewhere. Instead, they continue to come to the United States, not just for better material lives, but also for a freedom that many of them do not have in their countries of origin.
Sen. Joseph Lieberman describes an experience in which the special influence of the United States in extending freedom around the world was vividly manifest to him:
"The most electric moment of my sixteen months in Washington came during Lech Walesa's speech to the Congress, when he described how the American ideal of freedom had inspired and sustained him and the rest of the Solidarity movement during their darkest days. We're finding the same response in the rest of Eastern Europe and throughout the world. This is our strength, this powerful two hundred-year-old democratic idea of our Founding Fathers, and it must be the foundation of our foreign policy. Any time we sacrifice principles for what appear to be short-term international political gains, we lose -- if not in the short term, then eventually."
As Dr. Martin Luther King called upon us to do, we are living out the legacy of our founding documents. We are continuing to expand the concept that "all men are created equal" to ever greater numbers of our own citizens -- first to slaves and then to women -- so that even today we have a far more inclusive definition of freedom and a far more inclusive practice of freedom than any other country in the world.
But America has never been just a geographic place; it has always been an idea. That is why people can become American in a way that they cannot become German, French or Japanese. People from all ethnic backgrounds come to America, and when they embrace and pledge their allegiance to American ideals, they become Americans.
It is my moral conviction as an individual citizen that America does have a special role to play in the world. As a Christian, I believe in providence, and so I affirm that God has providentially blessed the United States of America. I am also responsible to obey Jesus' teaching that to whom much is given, much is required (Luke 12:35-49).
That doesn't give me the right to say, "We should do this because God said so." It is my responsibility in the public square to translate my religious argument into a moral argument that others can understand regardless of their religious differences. One doesn't have to be a Christian to believe that America has a special role to play in the world. Whether and how we will fulfill that role is a decision that will be made collectively, by the people, democratically. That's how we decide things in America.
America is not just a country with national interests. It is a cause, and that cause is freedom.
Richard Land is president of the Southern Baptist Convention's Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission. This column is adapted from Land's book, "The Divided States of America?: What Liberals and Conservatives Get Wrong about Faith and Politics" The book has been updated for 2011.