I hear a lot of people talk about America’s moral decline. There’s a real sense of lost innocence and yearning for a (morally) better time. I even hear that America was once a Christian nation. As a student of history, I’m wondering when?
When Was America Righteous?
(Bear with me. This next part may sound harsh, but I promise, I’m going to be kind again soon)
At its founding, when chattel slavery was written into the Constitution?
During its expansion, when American armies slaughtered thousands of indigenous people in the name of Manifest Destiny?
After the Civil War, when the Ku Klux Klan rode across the south, terrorizing and freed men who tried to vote or learn to read? When the sharecropper system substituted economic slavery for legal?
During the Gilded Age, when monopolies like Carnegie Steel and Rockefeller’s Standard Oil and massive political machines bought and sold laws? When immigrants and workers in unsafe factories, when children worked twelve hour days in mines? When the U.S. Navy was sent to Latin America to defend the interests of American corporations?
During World War I, when a generation of young men was sent to die for England in a war we had no share in? When those who opposed the war openly were jailed? When we let England and France force Germany into a peace treaty so odious it set the stage for Nazi rule and World War II?
During the “Roaring Twenties,” the time of the flappers and speakeasies, when organized crime rose to heights never seen before, setting the stage for fifty years of American mafia?
During the Depression, when national relief efforts openly discriminated against minorities, when the Ku Klux Klan resurfaced, when Jim Crow ruled the South?
During World War II, when Italian-, German-, and Japanese-Americans were imprisoned for the crime of their ethnicity?
During the fifties, the age of Ozzie and Harriett, Emmett Till, and the bombing of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s home? When Governor Orval Faubus uses the National Guard to block the integration of Little Rock High School?
Maybe the sixties, with the Viet Nam war, the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr., Robert Kennedy, and John F. Kennedy?
Or the seventies? Watergate, Viet Nam, the drug war? The days of disco and tearoom trades?
Was it the eighties? “Greed is good?” “Cocaine parties?” Iran-Contra? “Just Say No” and the crack epidemic? Well, we did have Republican Presidents, so maybe that was it?
The nineties? Surely not. Gangsta Rap. Bill Clinton and Monica Lewinski. The birth of Internet pornography…
Well, that brings us to the 21st century.
The point here is not to be sarcastic, or to be unpatriotic. I truly believe America is a great nation, even an exceptional nation. But we have never been a righteous nation. Nations run on power and money, and we all know that nobody can serve two masters [Matthew 6:24]. Maybe that’s why God was so reluctant to give Israel a king [1 Samuel ch. 8].
As Americans, we can be righteous and merciful. We can steer our nation to be more godly, to sow peace and life, rather than greed and death. But we should never forget that we are a nation of power and wealth, like all other nations (including Israel, ancient and modern). We should never forget that America is not the hope of the world. Jesus is.
(In part two, I’ll give my theories as to why the “America’s righteous past” meme is so persistent and powerful.)