One of the candidates for the office of the President of the United States has used as his official campaign slogan, “Make America Great Again.” If you want you can go to his official website and buy a baseball cap with that phrase on it. Depending on which hat you pick it will set you back anywhere from $3.03 to $25.00. Of course, you have to pay for shipping and handling too. Once you buy that hat, you can wear it and promote the idea that America has a former period of greatness that we just need to rediscover. As for me, even though I love baseball caps because they hide my baldness, I am going to keep my money in my pocket. And not because I think this candidate has more than enough sources of income already, but because the word “again” is just not something I can buy into.
I have learned over the course of my life that history is always interpreted from the perspective of those who have power. And the idea that our nation has a former period of greatness which we just have to rediscover comes from the perspective of white male privilege and the desire to hold onto that power. I am fairly certain if we were to ask some other groups to identify when our period of national greatness was, we would be met with silence. If we were to ask the Native American population this question about America’s greatness, they might refer instead to the ravaging of the land they hold sacred, the many treaties that have been broken, the genocidal Trail of Tears on which many of their ancestors died. The mistreatment of Native Americans continues today as the current battle over the oil pipeline in North Dakota shows. The proposed pipeline will go through a sacred burial ground and also has the potential of devastating local water supplies. Can you imagine the uproar if a pipeline was planned to run through Arlington National cemetery? Centuries of our violence and broken promises to Native Americans continues even in our day, as peaceful pipeline protestors were met with attack dogs and pepper spray. Or what about our African-American citizens? Is there any period of our history that they want to return to because it was great for them. Was it the brutal days of slavery when they were held in human bondage? The humiliating days of Jim Crow laws? The time not too long ago, within my lifetime, when beatings and lynchings still happened without fear of punishment for those white men who perpetrated such atrocities? Is there an American past that African-Americans want to rediscover because of its greatness? When it comes to these two groups of people American greatness is not something to be found “again.” As a former United States President once said about the American treatment of these two groups of people:
What we have done with the American Indian is in its way as bad as what we imposed on the Negroes. We took a proud and independent race and virtually destroyed them. We have to find ways to bring them back into decent lives in this country.
We could mention other shortcomings of greatness as well. The fact that women weren’t allowed to vote until almost 150 years after the United States began. The children who filled the coal mines and textile mills for meager wages while the owners gained further wealth. The internment of Japanese-American citizens during World War II. Our nation’s greatness is not something that lies behind us, except in the minds of those who want to disregard the full history of our nation as they seek to hold onto the power that they feel slipping from their grasp.
If there is a greatness to our nation it is found not in any historical period, it is to be found in the idea of our freedoms which allow us to have a voice about what is wrong with our nation and the opportunity to work and correct it. Our hoped for greatness lies in continually striving after the foundational idea that “all men are created equal and possess certain unalienable rights given by the Creator – among these rights being life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” When Thomas Jefferson penned those words, he could not have known that 250 years later we are imagining a fullness to his words that he never even dreamt of. Originally those words meant that only white male, land owners were equal and had certain rights. Our possible greatness lies in our continual work to expand our understanding that human equality and rights exist for all people.
As a person of faith in America it is the striving after a greatness that lies before us and is inclusive of all people, that my faith and my patriotism can work together. Every week when I stand behind the communion table and invite people to share in the meal of bread and cup, I say that the Lord’s Supper is for everyone, that all people are welcome. As an American I believe that equality and God-given rights are for all people – all genders, all colors, all creeds, all sexual orientations, all educational levels – everyone gets to be included in the pursuit of life, liberty and happiness.
Our national greatness doesn’t lie in our past. It is not something that can be discovered “again.” It lies in our ideas of freedom and equality for all. Ideas that we have never completely lived out, and at times we have quite shamefully failed them. Yet, the ideas of freedom and equality are something we can always strive toward and work for. Any greatness that the United States of America might attain is yet before us. So may we work ever harder toward fulfilling the great idea of a more just and inclusive nation for all