Anyone who has studied American history knows that keeping Americans united has been the greatest challenge. The necessity of a “more perfect union” led to the abolishing of the Articles of Confederation and to the delaying of a remedy for slavery by the Constitutional Convention. America is unique in the history of the world because it succeeded in bringing together men and women from different countries, cultures and even races. Every other country is united insofar as they share a certain character. Italy became a nation because all the smaller principalities were Italian, Greece because the city states were Greek, and France, French. It is the reason why Scotland always fought becoming part of England and why, in modern times, the EU is ultimately doomed to fail. But the United States is different because what actually unites its citizens is, as Chesterton observed, a creed. It is the proposition that all men are “endowed by their Creator with the inalienable rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” that unites us as Americans. To use another Chestertonian image, America may be a melting pot, but the pot itself is what holds it altogether.
This “unity in diversity” is precarious and the danger of dissolution is always around the corner. But the danger does not come not from any external enemy but from within. Lincoln, the Great Restorer of the Union, said this, rather prophetically in an 1837 speech at the Young Men’s Lyceum of Springfield:
“Shall we expect some transatlantic military giant, to step the Ocean, and crush us at a blow? Never!–All the armies of Europe, Asia and Africa combined, with all the treasure of the earth (our own excepted) in their military chest; with a Buonaparte for a commander, could not by force, take a drink from the Ohio, or make a track on the Blue Ridge, in a trial of a thousand years. At what point then is the approach of danger to be expected? I answer, if it ever reach us, it must spring up amongst us. It cannot come from abroad. If destruction be our lot, we must ourselves be its author and finisher. As a nation of freemen, we must live through all time, or die by suicide.”
As Lincoln entered office, the country was divided precisely because one of the fundamental elements of the American Creed, namely the equality of all men, was rejected by a large portion of the population. Those who were trying to reform the melting pot were in danger of breaking it.
Without any danger of hyperbole, we could easily say that we are facing a similar danger today. We are a country that is clearly divided and no longer merely along political lines. This is obvious to all but the most myopic of our citizens (namely politicians), but no solution can be found until we treat the principles articulated in the Declaration of Independence as more than quaint historical facts. It is the self-evident truths, and only these, that has kept our country united for 240 years. If it is to survive the next 20, we will need to return to these with greater clarity.
I have written in other places about the elements of the American Creed, but I would like to take this essay to a more foundational level. No amount of clarity will help us if we continue to deny the roots of the tree from which the fruits of freedom and equality flow. One can argue all day long whether or not the Founders were Christian or Deist or just children of the Enlightenment, but that ignores the fact that what they built was built on a Christian understanding of reality. They were breathing Christian air.
Equality of mankind?
Entirely unknown in the world until Christ came to save all mankind without distinction—“ There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Gal 3:28). Rich and poor, slave and free, Jew and Gentile all came together as one body to receive the one bread (1 Cor ). We are so used to this idea that we forget how revolutionary this idea was at the time.
Self-government rests upon the Christian understanding of the uniqueness of each individual person created by God and he is “the only creature that God has wanted for its own sake” (GS 24). This power of self-government that is received from God can be transmitted to the governing party and taken away in dire situations. As an aside, this was a foundational argument of Jefferson’s in the Declaration of Independence—“ But when a long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing invariably the same Object evinces a design to reduce them under absolute Despotism, it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such Government, and to provide new Guards for their future security.”
The point is that we cannot continue to take of the fruit of the tree while simultaneously digging up the roots. This is why John Adams in reflecting on the Constitution said that it is “made only for a moral and religious people. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other.” His point is that any attempt at self-government requires the ability for each person to govern himself. It requires virtue (i.e. a moral people). Only those who are virtuous can use their freedom well and in the manner it was intended, namely “the pursuit of happiness.” But as history bears out (including the failed attempt of the French Revolution based on the similar founding principles), virtue is not enough. Virtue requires religion. While there may be individual exceptions in a given society, the beginning of virtue is the fear of the Lord. Fear of judgment is not the end of virtue, but it is certainly the beginning. One must believe that he will eventually have to answer for his deeds (i.e. a religious people).
While some of the Founders may have seen religion only from a utilitarian viewpoint, this will not do. Our country needs not just “religion” but Christianity to survive. It is instructive to reflect on Jefferson’s use of the term “Church” when he speaks about the “wall of separation between Church and State.” Only Christianity has Churches. Despite his own religious leanings he knew that America needed Christianity. That means all of us need to be more Christian and not less. The peace of our society and the salvation of souls depends upon it.
A society like ours that has become indifferent and even hostile in some ways to Christianity is cutting off its nose to spite its face. The argument over which color lives matter presupposes the question as to why any lives matter at all—and only a Christian has an adequate response. All lives matter because God has definitively said so in giving the life of His Son. Why are we all dissatisfied with our choices for President? Because we inherently know that character matters more than competence, another tenant Christianity has taught us. In this great moment of division, who will lead? It must be Christians willing to sacrifice themselves holding the pot together for a love a God and neighbor.