Today is the 4th of July. For most Americans, that means fireworks, parades, picnics, and a long weekend. For many, though, the day brings about a certain sentiment tied to something deeper: reflection and celebration of the privilege that it is to be American.
I must confess that, in recent years, this holiday has made me a bit uncomfortable precisely because, as a Christian, it’s not a “holy day.” Unlike Christmas or Easter or even, to an extent, Thanksgiving (when God is supposed to be the object of our gratitude), Independence Day is not inherently tied to my Christian faith. Today is a celebration of a part of my identity—I’m an American—that I believe should be decidedly secondary to my identity as a Christian, but which at certain points in my personal history has perhaps competed for primary allegiance.
As a teenager—caught up in the patriotic sentiment that had almost everyone in the days follow September 11, 2001 humming “God Bless America,” wearing American flag t-shirts, and rallying behind the President whether or not they voted for him—I was so proud to be an American and so loyal to my country that I could scarcely imagine that the United States could do wrong. I considered anyone who would be critical of U.S. foreign policy or elements of U.S. history to be treasonous. The Constitution acquired canon-like status in my mind; the Founding Fathers were my magisterium. I was a Christian—this was a Christian nation, after all, as I understood it—but “God and Country” came close to becoming one muddled entity. Somehow, I forgot the core biblical teaching that “our citizenship is in heaven” (Philippians 3:20).
In recent years, I’ve repented of a blind nationalism that compromised my commitment to Christ. My rightful wariness to worship the United States of America, though, can swing me toward another sin: one of ungratefulness. The U.S. is not the Kingdom of God. We’ve had our share of failings historically and we’re probably repeating some of these sins even now—and yet, this country has a lot going for it. While I’m wary of claims of America’s absolute superiority to all other nations or of suggestions that our country has a unique relationship with and blessing from God—as Jonathan Merritt notes keenly in a recent post on Relevant’s blog, such boasts of American exceptionalism sound rather arrogant to our neighbors around the world—I would be ungrateful to not recognize the blessing that it is to be citizen of the United States.
My immigrant friends, neighbors, and brothers and sisters in the Church have helped me to recognize just how blessed I am to have been born in the U.S. While we still have relative poverty and unequal access to decent education and healthcare, most Americans live in relative comfort with their basic needs met, in stark contrast to many of the countries from which my friends have emigrated. We have the freedom to worship, to congregate, to critique, and to enterprise that many of our brothers and sisters around the globe do not. While our Constitution is not infallible (let us not forget that the original version assessed the value of an American of African origin at three-fifths that of a Caucasian) it has protected our basic rights and guided a government that—in stark contrast to many countries around the globe—has never seen a violent coup; instead, we take for granted orderly transitions of power. The fact that there are so few amendments to our Constitution in more than two centuries speaks to the wisdom of our Founders. My immigrant friends, who have left behind family and all that was familiar to gain by any means possible the rights and benefits that are mine by birthright, keep me from an uncharitable dismissal of the blessings of this country.
One of the greatest elements of this country is that to be American is not merely an identity based on the location of one’s birth or the color of one’s skin, but rather a commitment to a common set of ideals, “a matter of spirit and of the soul,” as Theodore Roosevelt once said. The immigrants that I know—both those who are naturalized citizens and those who, under current law (drastically different than the federal immigration laws of Mr. Roosevelt’s era) are ineligible for legal status—remind me of the best of our American ideals: they are hard-working and committed to their faith, their families, and to the well-being of this country—which they have adopted as their own. As columnist Fareed Zakaria notes, though, many in our country have turned their back on our nation’s strong immigrant heritage, preferring that we mimic the failed immigration policies of countries like France and Germany, keeping out as many as possible and creating insurmountable hurdles for those who wish to integrate into our society from doing so.
On this 4th of July, I’m grateful to be a citizen of the United States of America. I celebrate the heritage, fueled by immigrants from around the world, that has made this country a unique and hopeful experiment. And I pray that we, as a nation, have the wisdom to live into the best of our American values, integrating those undocumented immigrants who desperately yearn to be as Americans in passports as they are in their hearts.
Matthew Soerens is the co-author of Welcoming the Stranger: Justice, Compassion & Truth in the Immigration Debate (InterVarsity Press, 2009) and the US Church Training Specialist at World Relief. His blogs appear here on Mondays.
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