Greatness is a recurring theme in America’s presidential elections this year. The phrase, “Make America great again,” elicits images of American power, wealth and moral credibility.
This was a world not so far away, and not so long ago. Presidents were extensions of the goodness and liberating spirit of American citizens, not detached princes riding the backs of the electorate to serve hidden personal and corporate interests.
What makes the message of “great again” so inspiring? In a word, “hope.” Americans yearn for and crave a day when the elusive thing that made it the envy of the world, is recaptured and restored. Add to the natural altruism and optimism of American citizens a sense of urgency driven by valid fears of economic collapse, and the idea of “making America great again” becomes an unstoppable force.
The fears of many that America is in severe danger of implosion are not unfounded. Time is running out, and many are merely hitting the snooze button. Making America great again depends on its people believing and applying the principles that enabled its near-meteoric rise, and its unchallenged status as captain of nations.
The problem: America is not the same country it once was, and the momentum of history shows it is unlikely that it can ever be again. If the warnings of a French philosopher prove correct, the country which embodied the best human nature has to offer, and appeared to defy gravity, faces its final hours.
As if prophetically, French philosopher Alexis de Tocqueville wrote on his travels in the new world that, “If America would ever cease to be good, it would cease to be great.”
For those who share de Tocqueville’s view, greatness cannot exist without goodness, and even the longest enduring experiment in democracy cannot exist without a moral center. In short, the outward signs of wealth and opulence so readily embraced as evidence of America’s “greatness” are actually byproducts. America must not ignore the moral and legal source of its incredible wealth.
“Greatness” is enabled by two things fundamentally: a public belief in God as the foundation of liberty, and a Constitution that protects the individual from the state. When nations worship wealth and power, instead of holding fast to the principles which create wealth and power, they lose their way.
America is following a well-worn path. Nations and empires now long dead can usually trace the seeds of destruction to one thing primarily — a naive assumption that both freedom and depravity can coexist in equilibrium. But one corrodes the other. Human lawlessness, when unleashed and untethered, rarely confines itself to boxes. We need only look at America today to see the proof.
Some might question a God-centered basis for greatness. What about those who reject the existence of God? How can Atheists, Agnostics and other non-religious persons support and nurture American greatness if they do not embrace the foundation?
Assuming the premise that no true single deity exists, and that worship of a Judeo-Christian God is of little value, consider that when America worshiped said deity, it was arguably the most free and prosperous.
In other words, there is a secular application to be found in embracing Judeo-Christian moral foundations.
Even founding fathers who doubted every claim in the Bible certainly recognized the indispensable function performed by the Bible and churches. Ben Franklin had a famous heated exchange with noted atheist and patriot Thomas Paine, wherein he blasted Paine for advocating the systematic elimination of churches in public political discourse. In a letter dated Dec. 13, 1757, Franklin wrote,
“You yourself may find it easy to live a virtuous life, without the assistance afforded by religion … But think how great a portion of mankind consists of weak and ignorant men and women … who have need of the motives of religion to restrain them from vice, to support their virtue … .”
Franklin concludes his friendly rebuke of Paine, with the words, “If men are so wicked with religion, what would they be if without it?”
Franklin was not a saint, and frequented Paris whorehouses, but he still realized the importance of a recognized universal source of morality to support free societies. In fact, it was Franklin who famously demanded that a prayer be said before every meeting of the Constitutional Convention, admonishing delegates, “If a sparrow cannot fall to the ground without his [God’s] notice, is it probable that an empire can rise without his aid?”
So what is different today? America is no longer a “Christian” nation. Assumptions about truth are no longer unified and shared.
With church attendance at historically low levels (only 40 percent go weekly) and the Pew Religious Landscape Survey reporting that 60 percent of Christians think other faiths are just as valid, no universal source of morality rules in America, making old assumptions about right and wrong more difficult to enforce.
Agree or disagree with Judeo-Christian ethic, it is the incontrovertible support for most of our laws and assumptions about rights and liberty; throw it out, and we might as well throw away the entire First Amendment. Laws depend upon a prevailing moral consensus. Consequently, if America’s greatness is divorced from its actual source, it will eventually evaporate.
In fact, one great president warned that only a collective disregard for what makes America great by its own citizens could bring about the nation’s destruction. President Lincoln, in his now haunting Lyceum address, predicted that “ if destruction be our lot, we ourselves must be its author and finisher.”
President Harry Truman also agreed that the source of American greatness is found in its foundation, in this case, constitutionally-limited representative democracy. Though secular by most historical standards, even Truman understood that greatness came from a set of ideas, followed consistently over time:
The Constitution and the Declaration of Independence can live only as long as they are enshrined in our hearts and minds. If they are not so enshrined, they would be no better than mummies in their glass cases, and they could in time become idols whose worship would be a grim mockery of the true faith.
Truman was right. Belief in the value and superiority of America’s system, and a consistent application of that system’s principles, is largely what makes America work. Take away the system, and America is just another country, subject to the same whims and anarchy that plague other nations. Take away the moral “why” behind the system, and the system crumbles, and with it, any concept of “greatness.”
A casual perusal of current events reveals the obvious: that the unique combination of factors which secured America’s exceptional status as the most powerful country on the face of the Earth are no longer present in the genetic makeup of “America”.
If we no longer embrace the ideals that define America, and we appoint ourselves judges to decide when these beliefs can be situationally discarded, selectively violating the rights of targeted groups, then we are no longer “great.”
In light of America’s visible rejection of the values, ideas and system which made it great, can we really “make America great again”? Excavating ruins and clothing ourselves in old rags will not reignite the forces of American greatness. No one stares at the remains of the Greek Parthenon and sees a powerful city state. They see decay, shadows of a power long vacant, and echoes of a people who feared no one, and claimed greatness as a birthright. But none see a presence that is living or threatening.
America is quickly becoming a living ruin, a tribute to its origins and younger idealistic self, a state of affairs which many herald as “progress.” For those rationalizing decline as progress, America is by many measures more worldly, more wise, more “European” and enlightened in its thinking.
In reality, our monuments are now hollow memories, discarded when innocence was lost and our collective soul was sold for power, status and acceptance by other nations.
The fact is, America can be made great again, but greatness does not start in a museum.