As we experience the patriotic feelings the Fourth of July inevitably kindles, let's critique the widely held public theology that America is God's chosen nation.
Who has spoken in favor of such poppycock? Oh, George W. Bush, Al Gore, Lyndon B. Johnson, Ronald Reagan and on and on. A few examples:
Bush: "Our nation is chosen by God and commissioned by history to be a model to the world of justice and inclusion and diversity without division."
Gore: "I believe that God's hand has touched the United States of America -- not by accident but on purpose."
Johnson: "Our nation was created to help strike away the chains of ignorance and misery and tyranny wherever they keep man less than God wants him to be."
Reagan: "I've always believed that this land was set aside in an uncommon way, that a divine plan placed this great continent between the oceans to be found by a people from every corner of the earth who had a special love of faith, freedom and peace."
Some of this arrogance derives from John L. O'Sullivan, a magazine editor who coined the phrase "manifest destiny" in 1845. Here is some of what he said:
"... we may confidently assume that our country is destined to be the great nation of futurity." He asked: "... what can set limits to our onward march? Providence is with us, and no earthly power can. We point to the everlasting truth on the first page of our national declaration, and we proclaim to the millions of other lands, that 'the gates of hell' -- the powers of aristocracy and monarchy -- 'shall not prevail against it."'
Forces of evil
O'Sullivan thus appropriated Jesus' own words in Matthew 16:18, in which he said the church will never cave in to the forces of evil. Then O'Sullivan said this: "All this will be our future history, to establish on earth the moral dignity and salvation of man -- the immutable truth and beneficence of God. For this blessed mission to the nations of the world ... has America been chosen."
In the 160 years since O'Sullivan delivered himself of that spilth and hubris, Americans have done many wonderful things. Twice they have freed Europe from tyranny. They also freed the slaves, whose very condition made a mockery of O'Sullivan's words. And they've offered liberty to millions of immigrants. Those and other accomplishments should not be undervalued.
But in that same time we Americans also have experienced loss and pain and foolish leadership. Through our government, we have, for instance, cuddled up to dictators and corrupt regimes so they would continue to sell us the oil that lets us stomp the environment with our big footprint. We also have waged unwise wars and we have made enemies of people who once considered us friends.
All this and more has sobered us some, though not as much as it should have.
For a couple of years of my boyhood, I called India home. I have traveled around the world. I have seen Paris and Riyadh, Tokyo and New Delhi, Bangkok and Stockholm, Montreal and Cairo, Tashkent and Munich. And it has afforded me two insights that may seem conflicting but are really complementary.
It has made me love America -- and America's role in standing for liberty -- more. And it has helped me see that we when claim some special divine mandate for our nation, we engage in high-level fatuousness that should embarrass us.
We court terrible trouble if we believe God has made us the world's source of unfailing wisdom and goodness.
X Bill Tammeus is a columnist for The Kansas City Star.Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.