What Makes America Great?

Five decades after America gained independence, the French author Alexis de Tocqueville remarked on our nation’s exceptional character. Unlike other nations that were defined by ethnicity, geography, common heritage, social class, or hierarchal structures, America was a nation of immigrants bound together by a shared commitment to the republican principles of individual liberty, equality, personal responsibility, and laissez-faire economics.

These principles comprise the “American creed,” wrote G.K. Chesterton and are “set forth with dogmatic and even theological lucidity in the Declaration of Independence.”  There, the theological pegs of our Union are established in four explicit references to the Judeo-Christian God.

The Declaration of Independence opens by acknowledging “the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God.” It goes on to refer to the “Creator” who endows man with “certain unalienable rights.” It makes an appeal to the “Supreme Judge of the world,” and closes with an expression of trust in the “protection of Divine Providence.”

The Founders, and the founding document they authored, give testimony to the religious, and uniquely Judeo-Christian, underpinning of our nation. Today, numerous religious symbols on edifices in and around our nation’s capital add their voices to that testimony; images that exist in engravings and sculptures at the Washington Monument, the Jefferson and Lincoln Memorials, Arlington National Cemetery, the Capitol building, the Library of Congress, the White House, and the WWII Memorial, to name but a few.  The Ten Commandments are on full display at the Supreme Court over the East portico, on the Court doors and over the Chief Justice’s chair.

And, of course, the images of our religious heritage that most people see every day displayed on the dollar bill are the words IN GOD WE TRUST, flanked on both sides by the Great Seal, an American emblem rich in religious symbolism, not in Freemasonry as some conspiracy theories love to tout. 

A 1782 document written by the Seal’s creator, Charles Thomson, explains its various symbols.

On the reverse side of the Seal the unfinished pyramid which represents America as a Work in Progress, is show with 13 rows of bricks that represent the 13 original colonies.   Engraved on the bottom row are the Roman numerals MDCCLXXVI to signify the Declaration of Independence written in 1776 as the foundation upon which our country was built. 

Underneath the pyramid the words “Novus Ordo Seclorum” are literally rendered as “a new order of the ages,” signifying “the beginning of the New American Era,” not the beginning of a new world order, as conspiracy theories claim. 

Above the pyramid sits an omniscient eye enclosed in a triangle which represents the triune God who is associated with the nation 1) as a protector and guide whose glory radiates the pillar of fire guiding the Israelites of Exodus.  Similar imagery is on the obverse side of the Seal with glory radiating from a pillar of cloud surrounding 13 stars.  The imagery also represents  2) the standard to which the incomplete pyramid points and aspires to conform; and 3) God as Judge.

The motto above the eye, “Annuit Coeptis,” translated as “He favors our beginnings,” carries the converse implication that if the foundation of our beginnings is abandoned, his favor will turn to judgment.

The Great Seal, created after the Declaration of Independence and before the U.S. Constitution, reflects a religious heritage that the country’s Founders believed integral to the commonwealth of the nation. Thus, de Tocqueville, whose own country was marked by great tension between faith and freedom, was taken aback by the integration of the ideals he found in the social and political life across the sea.

The Church was not an arm of the State, nor the State an arm of the Church; still, biblical faith was a sort of DNA that informed the colonists’ sense of themselves as a nation, and of the principles of liberty, justice, law, and governance that became institutionalized as uniquely American.

In the formation of the “more perfect union,” no hardened barrier was erected, or intended, to prevent the introduction of religion into public spaces.  To the contrary, an Establishment Clause was crafted to secure the free exercise of religion and to prevent the intrusion of the State into the affairs of the Church, specifically prohibiting the legislation of a national religion.

Operating within its biblical sphere of sovereignty, the Church provides the moral framework for a just society. It acts as the conscience of the State, reminding Caesar of the high calling of his office, and its limits; and exhorting citizens to the duty owed Caesar. The State, in turn, protects the Church by defending, encouraging, and supporting religious expression, without preference to any particular sect.

“America is one of the greatest countries and continues to flourish year after year. Through the wars, the hardships, the terror, America has proven to the world that it cannot be knocked down and it will continue to be a nation that is for the people and run by the people. So why is it that these same people are saying that this country needs to be great again? What does again mean? When did America stop being great? How did America stop being great? And if America stopped being great, for any fragment of time, wouldn’t people have noticed? Wouldn’t that make people less interested to migrate to this chaotic yet beautifully creative nation?”   Maryam Alam,  “America Has Always Been Great,” Odyssey

Source:  What Makes America Great by Regis Nicoll, a fellow of the Colson Center,  Crisis Magazine.  You can read his essay in full at the link provided.

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