The slogan of our day: “Make America Great Again.” If I had a nickel for every time I’ve heard it, I could buy a nice condo in Maui right on the ocean (next door to Oprah Winfrey’s in Wailea). The slogan and its acronym, MAGA, have dominated cable television and social media since 2015. I even hear it in evangelical churches, for example when on the fourth Sunday of Advent (the Sunday before Christmas), First Baptist Church of Dallas, one of the largest Southern Baptist congregations in the country, devoted Sunday morning worship to a special “Make America Great Celebration.” First Baptist, Dallas is not the only congregation to platform MAGA in its congregational life and worship. Hundreds of congregations affiliated with the New Apostolic Reformation (NAR) and prosperity preachers like Kenneth Hagin Jr. fill their worship with MAGA political symbols, themes, and content.
Lots of ink has been spilled about MAGA, and I don’t want to add much more. At the same time, all that ink has neglected the final word of the slogan: again. To “make America great again” implies a time in the past when America was great; a time we must recover. Hence, the questions I want to ask: When was America great? What time in American history do you want us to return to so that we can recapture this American greatness?
When was America great?
Let’s explore some possibilities.
Was America great in the 1780s when state governments refused to pay the Continental army, the very soldiers who defeated the British?
Was America great in the early 19th century when federal and state governments broke treaties with First Nations tribes and deported thousands from their homes?
Was America great in the 1840s when its army invaded Mexico, a war that then congressman Abraham Lincoln and many others strongly opposed?
Was America great in the mid-19th century when its overwhelmingly Christian population could not agree over whether the four million enslaved people in their midst were actually human?
Was America great when it fought a Civil War over slavery, a war that cost 750,000 lives? (Contrary to popular myth, the war was about slavery as the leaders of the Confederacy made clear in their writings.)
Was America great during the 1870s and 1880s when Reconstruction led to Jim Crow–government sponsored oppression and violence directed at many of our citizens because of their skin color?
Was America great when nationwide Jim Crow laws and violence in the early 20th century were cited by Adolf Hitler as inspiration for his treatment of Jews in Nazi Germany, events that we rightly call The Holocaust? (My guess is that the Ku Klux Klan were the precursors of the infamous Nazi brownshirts of the 1920s and 1930s).
Was America great just before World War II when its leaders turned away a large ship of Jewish refugees fleeing Germany after the Holocaust had already begun?
Was America great in the 1960s and 1970s when it fought an unnecessary war in southeast Asia, a war that cost nearly three million lives, left 60,000 American soldiers dead, and fragmented us at home?
When is America Great?
Like all nation states, the American track record is mixed. But the United States has done well some important things. Our Constitution, while not perfect, does limit the power of one person or group and guarantees human rights and liberties to its citizens. Our country has welcomed people from across the globe to settle here for economic opportunity and human freedom. And our country has valued human work through policies like minimum wage laws, unemployment insurance, and policies to provide safe working conditions.
Thomas Jefferson wrote the American declaration of independence in early summer 1776. I wonder if he realized the gravity of his words when he wrote, “All men are created equal.” All were certainly not equal at the time Mr. Jefferson composed those words. European societies like Great Britain were bastions of inequality. The rich were better than the poor. The aristocrats were better than the working class. Everyone was better than the Black slaves scattered throughout the British Empire. Even the Puritans embraced European inequality with daily practices like “hat honor,” the requirement that those of a lower social scale tip their hats towards those of a higher social class.
Those realities framed the American colonies as well. But Mr. Jefferson’s words upended all of that, and the story of America is the ongoing conscious struggle to expand liberty and human rights to all of our citizens. America becomes great when all of its people, no matter their skin color, ethnic origins, or country of origin enjoy political, religious, and economic freedom.
To what time should we return?
I’m happy that I live in 2022, not 1822 or 1922. Those times were far more dangerous than now. That’s not to say we don’t have political and social problems now. But in 2022, more Americans than ever enjoy the human rights and liberties promised in our Declaration and our Constitution; far more than either 1822 or 1922. I cannot think of a better time to be an American.
Still, as a follower of Jesus living in America 2022, what can I and my fellow Jesus followers do? One thing we must not do is turn the United States into a theocracy. Every time that has been tried in the 2,000-year history of Christianity; it has always ended badly.
Why? Because every person and human agency is framed by sinful depravity, and Genesis 3 reminds us that all of us, Christians included, are subject to sin and its consequences. We can’t even avoid conflict and sin in our churches. What makes us think that we can eliminate them from the United States!
Jesus understands that. That’s why he tells us about the Kingdom of God, “The time is fulfilled; the Kingdom of God is at hand. Repent and believe in the Gospel” (Mk 1:15). The Kingdom of God is seen when good seed falls on the soil of our lives (Mt 13:23). The good seed of the Kingdom does its work slowly. It starts small and grows over time into a great tree that benefits the natural world (Mt 13:31-2). The Kingdom is like a great treasure, a pearl of great value, that causes the one who discovers it to sell their possessions to own it (Mt 13:45-46).
The Kingdom of God is not fast and flashy; it is slow and patient. It is not top-down but bottom-up. It doesn’t cut corners. It is realistic about the world in which we live.
Jesus also tells us to order our lives around two simple principles: Love God and love others. The New Testament provides ample guidance for how we can do both in our lives and in our congregations. To love God simply means we surrender our lives to him, trust Christ as our Lord and Savior, and learn how to follow him day by day.
To love others involves seeking their welfare. Recent Christian writers have used the term “human flourishing” as a description of what the Triune God desires for all of us. I like that term. But Jesus makes me uncomfortable when he teaches us to “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you!” (Mt 5:44). Really? I’m supposed to love my political opponents? I’m to seek the welfare of immigrants moving to my town? What about those atheists who want to take God out of the public schools? How about those Muslims who just built a mosque across town? Or those government bureaucrats who tell me I need a license to get a new HVAC unit? Or that Christian group down the street that doesn’t read the Bible right?
I think Jesus knows how hard those things are, and that is why he warns about gaining the entire world and losing our very souls. Hence, his counsel involves things like praying for others, especially those we want to see as enemies; respecting and praying for authorities even when we disagree with their policies; speaking for others when we see the injustice they face in society; and especially telling others the good news about the death and resurrection of our Lord and Savior. Those things are far more important than turning the United States into a “Christian” nation.
I cannot think of a better time to be an American than right now. I wouldn’t change it for any other time in our history.