Is America praiseworthy?
It is an odd question to ask on your national holiday. But I ask it with a purpose in mind. I ask because many Americans seem unsure of the answer.
You own President, when asked, could not even bring himself to praise American exceptionalism. Even to agree with the basic idea, he had to describe America as *subjectively* exceptional, on par with other nations… like Greece.
This problem is tricky to correct. If some flag-waving patriots stood up to make the case for why it is, they might be dismissed with a scoff: “Merica”. As an outsider with a window into America, who lived there for several years, I have an opportunity to weigh in with my two cents.
I will speak of America at her best. She has shortcomings, sure, but those I have described elsewhere. They are not the focus of this piece.
How should we begin?
I could point to her achievements, like so many others do. I could point to education, and how many of the world’s top universities are American. We could count up her scientific achievements — inventions and Nobel Prize winners, for example. We could look at medical advances, and where the most complicated surgeries go to be pioneered. We could look to her military might — not just the hardware, impressive in its own right — but how it that might was used to help stop the aggressors in both World Wars, and to counterbalance a hostile Warsaw Pact nations in the Cold War.
I could trace the story how she went from upstart colony on the fringe of the Civilized world, to Economic Juggernaut. We might even remind the readers about how that wealth her critics so vilify was critical in rebuilding a broken Europe.
We could point to the night sky, and ask (with some swagger) whether any other nation has set foot on the Moon that stares back at us.
The Industrial Revolution, Flight, the Assembly Line, Telecommunications, Computers, the Electric Light and even Electricity. We recognize the role America had in bringing us all these things so critical to modern living.
This list does not even begin scratch the surface of American accomplishments. But it makes the point. And yet, are you aware, that none of these are the reason I consider America a great nation?
It isn’t so much what America has done — amazing as that list might be — so much as what she is.
Unlike so many other nations, America started with a blank slate. She started at a very opportune moment in history, when Antiquity was being rediscovered, and we could, through accurate histories, watch the rise and fall of several major empires, including lessons about what worked, and what hazards a nation may face, both external and internal.
Lessons were learned about the dangers of tyrants. The weakness of Oligarchy. The siren song of populism when it bribed citizens with their own money. The dangers of too much military, as well as not having a ready military. Lessons were learned about how to temper such dangers.
They also learned a lot about individual freedom. Eventually they framed a system where men of rank or wealth could no longer lord it over those who were neither.
A system was established where the Rule of Law — not the will of a king — held sway over a nation. Not the demands of either the elites, nor mob rule, but a Constitution. A system where even the elites would face prosecution if they transgressed the law.
It was a collection of States, freely entering into a mutually-beneficial association. There was no conquest, no coup-D’etat. Just willing hearts, a declaration of freedom, and contract defining exactly what all that meant.
Those ideas, in turn — whether we acknowledge it or not — owe a debt to the Christian principles that drove them… including the distinguishing of separate authority spheres of Church and State.
Will we see a return to the impartial Rule of Law, a return this dynamic model embracing the morality that first made America great? Will we continue to slowly unravel the social fabric that did so?
It is too early to tell for sure. But what I can say, is this: America has its own distinctive greatness. Even the Framers acknowledged it rested upon specific morals, and this system cannot find a firm foundation on a society without that moral compass.
For that greatness to endure, it must once again rest on a firm foundation. It has been great, certainly. And it is my fond hope, that such greatness will continue.