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The Myth and Possibility of American Greatness

Our national circus of the election has got less than a week to go. It seems like we have been in this election forever, with our nation becoming more and more polarized and divided each day. Sometimes I wonder what keeps us still a United States of America. I am not sure if we as a people actually are this divided or if it is just that our political discourse is so divided and divisive.

Over the last year, I have had a lot to say about this campaign — mainly about the Trump campaign. We’ve talked about a love that transcends Trump, and how ultimately there is no “other” America, and that we have to build the America that we want to live in together. But I want to focus on something else today, something that actually is shared across the political spectrum: the so-called “Greatness” of America.

It is a ubiquitous part of American political discourse. We are Great. We are Great, and we keep telling ourselves just how great we are. And we insist that our leaders tell us just how great we are. How often we have our leaders tell us that we live in the “greatest country on Earth.” We are shocked and dismayed if anyone questions whether we are in fact the greatest country that has ever existed.

Having had the fortune of traveling around the world and living in different countries, I am very conflicted about this claim of greatness. I love this country as my home. It’s where I was born. It’s where I have spent the majority of my life. It’s where I work and resist and struggle. It is where I hope and love and pray and dream. It’s where my babies have been born. It is my home. One home among many homes.

But I have lived elsewhere too, and I know that we do not have a monopoly on goodness, or greatness. I have seen the charm of Esfahan, the magical historical cosmopolitanism of Istanbul, the sanctity of Kyoto, the lovely majesty of the Swiss mountains, and the forests of Vancouver. I have seen the public transportation system elsewhere, and seen firsthand how other countries feed their children, educate themselves, do not have daily mass shootings, and heal their sick. In comparison, there are many areas where we in America do not seem so great.

Trump, as has been amply documented, keeps talking about how he is going to make America “great again.” If one is going to make America great again, presumably we had been great once — and then ceased to be great. When pushed and pressed into talking about when America was great previously, Trump is usually evasive until he eventually reveals that America was last great in the 1940s and 1950s.

But is that really the case? For whom exactly were the 1940s and 1950s such a great time?

The 1940s and 1950s were not a great time if you were African American, when America was still legally prohibiting the full exercise of their constitutional rights through unjust and racist Jim Crow laws.

The 1940s and 1950s were not a great time if you were a non-white immigrant, since the immigration policy of the United States was designed to preserve the whiteness of America.

The 1940s and 1950s were not a great time if you were female.

In short, a lot of the Trump phenomenon betrays nostalgia for a time that there was a hegemony of white Christians in America. Racially speaking, America is changing, and has changed rapidly. And religiously we are a far more diverse and pluralistic nation than we have been before. That diversity is not political correctness, or an ideology. It is simply a fact. We can look at this increased diversification of America as a “problem” or a challenge. For those of us whose ancestors would not have been allowed or welcomed in America, it is simply a fact, a truth, a reality.

But what has gone perhaps far less noticed is Secretary Clinton’s response to Trump’s slogan of “making America great again.” Her response has always been:

“This country is great because we are good.”

In other settings, she has said:

“Despite what you hear,
we don’t need to make America great again.
America has never stopped being great.”

This has been clearly part of a concerted Democratic response to Trump. President Obama has also repeatedly mirrored this language:

“America is already great. America is already strong…
And I promise you, our strength, our greatness,
does not depend on Donald Trump.”

In other words, the Democratic response to Trump simply accepts the “greatness” of America, and actually extends it back historically and even to our present state. We don’t have to make America great again, because we were great, and we are great.

At worst, this “greatness” of America ties to a deeply rooted and ingrained notion of American exceptionalism, an unjust colonial and imperial arrogance that has been justified religiously as well. Do we not sing in “America the Beautiful” that “God shed his grace on thee”? American politicians of all stripes have taken Jesus’s words — “You are the light of the world. A city that is set on a hill cannot be hidden” — as if they were meant for America.

It is this American exceptionalism that was reflected in the Manifest Destiny that led to our settler colonial project. Republicans and Democrats have perpetuated this notion of American exceptionalism. Reagan directly connected this legacy of the settlers to the Biblical notion of being the “city on a hill”:

“I believe that Americans in 1980 are every bit as committed to that vision of a shining ‘city on a hill,’ as were those long ago settlers.”

And President Obama concurred, stating:

“I believe in American exceptionalism.”

And Dick Cheney, that darling of the neoconservatives, put the very words in the title of his book Exceptional: Why the World Needs a Powerful America. Cheney taps into the legacies of Lincoln, Kennedy, and Reagan to argue that:

“We are, as Lincoln said, ‘the last, best hope of earth.’ We are not just one more nation, one more indistinguishable entity on the world stage. …. Neither they nor we should ever forget that we are, in fact, exceptional.”

No, there are no exceptional nations, religions, or communities. The line between good and evil runs through each of us, with each of us being a mingled mess of contradictions. America is no more exceptional than any other corner of this small third rock from the sun. As the Christian theologian Stanley Hauerwas has argued, if we take into consideration America’s legacy of war-mongering, we might have to choose between being an American and being a Christian.

Let us leave aside for a moment being exceptional and come back to the “great” conversation. What if America is not “great”? Somewhere we were told that if we love somebody, we tell them the truth.

Do we dare be truth-tellers?

Martin Luther King, Jr. said in Riverside that we are to speak to our government using the “mandate of conscience” and a “reading of history.” Let us speak truthfully with one another about what our history has been.

How do we look at each other and say that an American experiment that was built on the extermination and genocide of Native Americans was not great?

An America that took in millions of enslaved Africans for hundreds of years and had slavery as a legal practice was not great.

An America that enslaved the descendants of those slaves was not great.

An America that had Jim Crow for decades was not great.

And an America that officially defined citizenship as the purview of “free, white men” from March 26, 1790 until, formally (if not in actuality), it was extended to African Americans, Native Americans, and women was not great.

An America that today has 20 percent of its children living in poverty (and 24 percent of its African-Americans, 21 percent of Hispanics, and 27 percent of Native Americans living in poverty) is not great.

And an America that spends hundreds of billions of dollars on its military while we have children in poverty, crumbling roads, failing schools, inadequate hospitals, terrible public transportation, sub-standard public accommodation and a wounded environment is. Not. Great.

Let’s go back to the truth-telling fountain of prophetic love, revolutionary love, and justice that are at the heart of the Martin and Malcolm and Heschel tradition of America. Martin told us that there is no great disappointment where there is also not great love. If we say that we as a people were not great, it is not because we hate America, but because we love our home. It is because we cannot stand what we have done, and will speak out until the rocks cry out. It is because we know that we were never as inclusive, as kind, as just as our own ideals indicated. It is because we love the fragile American experiment that we want to be better than what we have been in the past.

We love America so much that we would love to think that it is destined for greatness, but if greatness is written for America, it is not in our past, and it is not in our present state. But it might be in our future.

If we measure greatness not by the size of our buildings or the national wealth we generate, but based on how people who find themselves weak and vulnerable are faring, then we know that greatness is far from our present state.

If we insist that we were not great and are not great, it is actually because we ache to become great. Not exceptional, not the greatest, but simply good, by bringing love into the public spaces and taking care of our weak and vulnerable.

We love America enough to know that being the “greatest nation on Earth” is not truthful, not sustainable, and not just, but we can be and should be a good nation, a kind nation, a loving nation.

Back to the election on this Tuesday.

I wish we could remember that our loyalties are never to be to this candidate or that candidate, but to love and justice.

Our loyalties are never to be to this political party or that political party, but to love and justice.

And our loyalties are never to be to this country or that country, but only to love and justice.

Somewhere I remember the voice of Martin telling us:

“This I believe to be the privilege and the burden of all of us who deem ourselves bound by allegiances and loyalties which are broader and deeper than nationalism and which go beyond our nation’s self-defined goals and positions. We are called to speak for the weak, for the voiceless, for the victims of our nation and for those it calls ‘enemy,’ for no document from human hands can make these humans any less our brothers.”

So friends, let us go out there and vote. Yes, vote your conscience, based on an honest reading of history on November 8.

And no matter how it turns out — and let us pray that it is an outcome that uplifts as many as possible — let us keep working to bend the arc of the moral universe towards justice.

The work continues before, through, and after the election.
The task of building the Beloved Community is an everyday task.

Let us work not for a Great America, not for an America that has “already been great,” but for a good America, for a just, kind, and loving America.

We ache to become that America.
And we have every hope that the possibility is still open.

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