Make America great again? America has never been great, from its infancy wallowing in sin and injustice. America has always been great, a land whose creeds and ideals inspire even beyond our borders.
While these two views appear to clash, any accurate and patriotic rendering of America must include each side of this historical coin.
In his The Freedom of the Christian, written in 1520, Martin Luther wrote, “A Christian is a perfectly free lord of all, subject to none. A Christian is a perfectly dutiful servant of all, subject to all.” This apparent paradox is the key to being a Christian, the key to accepting the power of the gospel. The Christian has perfect freedom — he is not bound by works, she is not bound by sin. However, the Christian is also bound to serve everyone — love they neighbor applies, in a very real way, to all people. “Although the Christian is thus free from all works,” Luther wrote, “he ought in this liberty to empty himself, take upon himself the form of a servant, be made in the likeness of men, be found in human form, and to serve, help, and in every way deal with his neighbor as he sees God through Christ has dealt with him and still deals with him.” Is the Christian free to do as he or she pleases, living under the full grace of God? Or is the Christian bound to all people, serving and loving them as Christ served and loved the church? Per Luther — and, of course, in a much greater and truer sense — the Bible, though these ideas may be paradoxical, they do not stand in opposition to one another. The answer to both is yes.
In the same way, though saying that America has both never and always been great may be paradoxical, these two viewpoints do not stand in opposition to each other. Indeed, as patriotic Americans faithful to our ideals, history, and tradition, we must hold these two viewpoints at the same time.
For if America is not now great, when was it great? Our country has enslaved black people, nearly eradicated Native Americans, interned Americans of Japanese descent, dealt with bigotry toward blacks, Jews, women, Hispanics, Asian, Irish, Italians, lesbians, and gays, imprisoned political dissidents, unjustly invaded sovereign countries, and murdered millions of unborn children. This all happened in our past, and in some cases it is still happening. America has never been great.
Then again, every country has its blots and stains. America is an exception, and exceptional, in its very ideals. Sure we have had a problem with race that has shaped our history in untold number of ways — but we have literally fought and struggled to eradicate racial bigotry, to the point where, though there is still much work to be done, we could elect a black president. Admittedly, many countries have suffered from our foreign policy failures — but we also helped defeat the murderous and evil regimes of Nazi Germany, Imperial Japan, and Soviet Russia. Our remarkable Constitution has brought a sense of stability and liberty that is unusual in governments the world over. Essential documents like the Declaration of Independence, Lincoln’s Second Inaugural, and MLK’s “I Have a Dream” speech have inspired and moved people across the globe. America is great, and always has been.
To paper over our country’s sins is to blind us to our past in a way that prevents us with reconciling with other peoples and with each other. To ignore our triumphs is to accept a fatalistic viewpoint that offers no hope at all. America has never been great. America has always been great.