We are three weeks into this sermon series I’m calling “Things We’re Supposed to Believe, But Maybe Shouldn’t.” When I first began, I was thinking about theological clichés we’ve been taught that bear further scrutiny, but it occurred to me this week that there are all kinds of things we’ve been taught, in all kinds of fields, that we accept as gospel-truth, assumptions we never think to question, or perhaps are afraid to question. For instance, during the vice-presidential debate this past week, Vice-President Pence said America was the greatest country on earth. Kamala Harris nodded her head, because if you’re running for public office you can’t not agree, and the debate went merrily on.
That evening, I went to bed thinking about what constitutes national greatness and how often claims of greatness have little to do with objective reality. I told someone this week that my mother was the best mom ever. The man I said that to said, “That’s wonderful,” even though not five minutes before he’d told me his mother was the best mom ever. One of us is lying.
Of course, it’s one thing to boast about our mothers, but when we boast about our nation, it has consequences we don’t always anticipate, some of them harmful, which is what I want to talk about this morning.
Before we go further, I want to challenge the belief expressed by many Christians that pastors have no business discussing politics. If so, I find it interesting that one of the primary concerns of the Bible is the formation and structure of a nation, Israel, and the rules that should govern it. The ancestors of our faith obviously believed that spirituality, community, and governance were intrinsically connected, that to be spiritual was to be deeply concerned about society’s health and well-being. So no more of this false distinction, no more building barriers around our civic structures as if people of faith should have no say in the matter. To be sure, this does not mean every religious perspective is true and helpful. But they must nevertheless be heard and if found wanting, can then be judged inappropriate. So let’s hear them, let’s evaluate them, and if those views are helpful and constructive, let’s make room for them, and if those views are unhelpful and destructive, let’s reject them.
This morning, I want to talk about the phrase, “America is the greatest nation on the earth.” I can’t remember the first time I heard someone say this, though I suspect I heard it in a speech, or shouted at an Olympic sporting event — USA! USA! USA! — when we were competing against the Soviet Union. For many years, whenever I heard someone say America was number one, I would think to myself, “Well, of course, we’re number one,” though I never stopped to think about what that meant and whether or not it was true.
So you can imagine my dismay when I grew up and began meeting people from other nations who, much to my surprise, thought their nation was the greatest nation on the earth. In high school I remember arguing with an exchange student from Sweden about this very thing, who in her preparation for living in the United States failed to learn that most essential of American doctrines—that we were superior. More free, more wealthy, more peace-loving, more just, more godly, more intelligent, more equal, and more virtuous.
Every Sunday when I went to church, we were asked to pray for people who didn’t live in America, who didn’t have our blessings, as if Sweden or Scotland or Switzerland were hellholes. Though I was young, I remember when Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated, and my father being distraught. “This is not what America is about,” he assured me.
“So this didn’t happen in America?” I asked. I wasn’t sure where Memphis was.
“No, it did,” he told me.
So it was what America was about, I thought to myself, but the confusion and contradiction were too much, so I put it out of my mind, picked up my flag, and continued to wave it. America is free, America is peace-loving, America is godly, America is just, America is virtuous. When anyone questioned any of those assertions, it angered me. I remember telling the Swedish exchange student that if she didn’t like America, she could leave it.
“It’s not that I don’t like America,” she said. “I just don’t think it’s perfect.”
This struck me as blasphemous and I stepped back, expecting God to strike her dead. But God didn’t, and the exchange student returned to Sweden and for her taxes received lifetime health-care, a living wage, higher education, guaranteed housing, a pension, lower crime, child care, elder care, fewer barriers to business start-ups, five weeks of vacation, and a life span four years longer than yours and mine.
And I’m supposed to pray for her?
I say this not to disparage America. In the words of the hymn, This Is My Song, America is, “my home, the country where my heart is; here are my hopes, my dreams, my holy shrine.” But I can’t help but wonder if our drumbeat assertions of greatness have made us arrogant, causing us to be dismissive of other nations and cultures that have much to offer. We know this is true, because we have seen, time and again, the hubris of prideful people, and their unwillingness to listen or learn from anyone else.
But what if Spain could teach us about health care? What if China and Japan knew something about mass transit that we didn’t? In China, they can build a bridge in 43 hours. Why can’t we do that? What does Finland know about happiness that the U.S.A. doesn’t? Perhaps we could ask them.
I know we call ourselves the land of the free, but globally we’re ranked 15th on the Human Freedom Index. New Zealand is now ranked as the most free nation in the world. We imprison more of our fellow citizens than any other nation. Perhaps Norway has something to teach us about criminal justice.
Whenever I do marital counseling, I always enter into that venture with optimism. Over the years, I’ve witnessed tremendous growth in people and their relationships. But there is one type of person I’ve never been able to help, no matter what. That’s the person who thinks they’re the best, thinks they’re the best husband, the best wife, the best parent. Convinced that they are the best, they believe the other is always at fault, that there is nothing they need to learn, so leave in their wake ruined and broken relationships and people. What the writer of Proverbs said is deeply true, that “pride goeth before destruction, and a haughty spirit before a fall.”
We have heard since infancy that America is number one. Can we honestly say our culture has been well served by our national hubris? Has it made us more loving, more wise, more creative, more visionary, more thoughtful, more cooperative, more just, more secure?
America is long overdue for a new chant, a new mantra worthy of our highest values. A vision of America rooted not in arrogance, but in aspiration. Not bragging about who we were, but dreaming of what we can become, if we put our minds and efforts to it, if we listened instead of shouted, if we gave instead of took, if we united instead of divided.
Friends, God cares how we live together. Even a cursory reading of Scripture reveals God’s passion for just and loving community, informed by grace and humility. Thus, we dare not boast that we are the best, we strive instead to be our best, and to help others do the same.