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Wednesday Word: Variations on America

May 19, 2021 | Jay T. Smith

A new book is coming out titled American Republics: A Continental History of the United States, 1783-1850, by Robert Taylor. The premise of the book is that the colonization of the American west was not a unified, patriotic attempt to expand the borders of the United States and fulfill its destiny, but rather a wide variety of attempts by business interests and states to establish strongholds in the midst of internal strife and growing divisions. We continue to live in that America. Wracked with strife and division, paralyzed by violence, and distrusting both scientific research and religious belief, the United States is heading down a dark road.

Fragile Union

In truth, the United States of America exists with a fragile union, held together by the slimmest of trust, skeptical appreciation, and a mutual, yet problematic, passion for freedom. In many ways our geography outlines at least ten American “republics” each of which is defined by ethnicity, industry, and tradition. Colin Woodward in American Nations describes these regions as: The Left Coast, Far West, El Norte, The Midlands, Greater Appalachia, Deep South, New France, Tidewater, New Netherlands, and “Yankeedom.” Because of our differences, our “union” is uneasy, and usually only finds “unity” in times of great national distress: world war, economic collapse, or pandemic.

Greatness in Diversity

The “greatness of America,” whatever that might be, is elusive. I venture that America’s true greatness is its ability to exist with such great diversity. Let’s face it, our technological prowess came from German, Swiss, and Asian immigrants. Similarly, our greatest achievements in the arts and humanities were inspired by European, Hispanic, and Asian immigrants. Our profound religious plurality comes from the persecuted religious sects of Europe – Puritans, Methodists, Pietists, Mennonites, Quakers, Shakers, and other Protestant sects. Catholics, Dutch Reformed Protestants, and Anglicans (Episcopalians) also eventually emigrated — not out of persecution, but rather from economic opportunity. Additionally, our willingness to accept the religious practices of our Asian and Middle Eastern immigrants opened the continent to Sikhism, Buddhism, Judaism, Islam, and others. The great tragedy is that “native” American people were people of the land, people of profound spirituality, as well as people of great courage and ingenuity, yet our European forebears sought to push them aside, exterminate them, and only finally synthesize them into Anglo-American culture, rather than to learn from them and live peacefully with them.

Compared to other nations in our world, Americans have tremendous freedom. Yet, that greatness has never been tied to our military prowess, our profound capitalist economy, or educational standards. It has been in our diversity of peoples, and our compassion for those who struggle. Christians—people who follow the way of Jesus — should know that simple fact.

Benefit All People

The role of Christian faith in America has been diverse — sometimes meaningful and change-minded, and other times impotent and calloused. Although many of the founding fathers were practicing Christians, they did not set out to “found a Christian nation.” They set out to found a nation that would be welcoming to all peoples. They set out to found a nation where peoples who were oppressed for their religious and political expressions would find safety and acceptance. They set out to found a nation that would not tolerate the rule of tyranny, taxation without representation, and forced religious observance. They sought to found a nation that was ruled by the people for the benefit of all people.

Faith Builds Bridges

To govern such a diverse population with such diverse backgrounds and concerns, it takes people willing to listen and to consider what strategy or policy will work best—work for the good, for all citizens. Faith is the ingredient that makes this type of governance work. Not a specific protestant denomination or religion, but the conviction that God exists, and wants the best for all peoples, and everything in and of the earth. In my experience, Jesus is the exemplar of this faith. Jesus allows us to see through a different set of eyes — eyes that do not resent, do not hate, and that understand the value of all people. It’s only through this mindset that the leaders in our democracy can accomplish the goals set out before them. Wall-building, mass destruction, threats, and posturing are not part of the lives of the people of faith. “Draining the swamp” is for the corps of engineers to do, and it doesn’t include hurting the hardworking servants of our democracy.

Christians, we have hard work ahead of us. The work of bridge building between points-of-view; the work of advocating for our fellow citizens, brothers and sisters, who are impoverished, under educated, and struggling for a “normal,” positive existence in our nation; the work of defusing the anger, hate, and violence in a world that has forgotten its origins and purpose. This is, and has been, the work of Jesus, our Savior. He fellowshipped with the unsavory in his world, and He sought to make the world a better, more loving, and more hopeful place. For Christians, it is the way of Jesus or bust. Take up your cross, and follow Him!

Jay T. Smith

President and Bridger Professor of Theology & Ethics

Dr. Jay Smith leads the Yellowstone Theological Institute as its president. Dr. Smith has served as minister of youth, music and as senior […]

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