Because the United States has such deep and important roots in Christianity, it is always going to be difficult to separate the two. One can make an argument that the United States is the most Christian nation on earth. (A possible exception is the Vatican.) One can also make an argument that the United States has never been a truly Christian nation. The difference is between ideals and practice.
The strength of the United States has always been a set of ideals that hold us together and give us something to strive toward. Everybody knows that the early colonists were flawed. We all understand that (by today’s standards) there is a difference in what our founding documents declare and the behavior of those who first signed it. I would personally rather have an idealistic hypocrite write a beautiful document that challenges a people to be better than an honest person write a document that declares, “this is the way it is and ever shall be — live with it.”
One of the common threads I can see between the Constitution and Bill of Rights and the Bible is the acceptance of unacceptable social conditions while providing for the demise of those conditions if the ideals are lived. I continue to be optimistic. I also believe that a nation that has citizens who claim to be Christian and actively work against the good and equality of fellow citizens will be in a cycle of trouble.
The summer of 1967 was filled with demonstrations and rioting. President Lyndon Johnson set up the National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders. The report was published on March 1, 1968. The response of elected officials was mixed, and President Johnson did not endorse it. The excerpts that I read were insightful. A shame it was ignored.
As with many historical documents, it sounds remarkably contemporary. I have not changed the wording to reflect current vocabulary. “In the immediate aftermath ... despite some notable public and private efforts, little basic change took place in the conditions underlying the disorder. In some cases, the result was increased distrust between blacks and whites, diminished interracial communications, and growth of Negro and white extremist groups.”
The preface noted, “This Nation will deserve neither safety nor progress unless it can demonstrate the wisdom and the will to undertake decisive action against the root causes of civil disorder.” The difficulty we have here is the insistence that public policy or a political party can solve this “root cause.”
Those who have an interest in keeping things the way they are, whether they are fashioning themselves as “saviors of POC” or as defenders of the status quo have little interest in solving the problem. The ballot box may be part of the solution, but it is the smaller part. The greater part needs to come from all of us who rarely have opportunity to influence legislation. The laws will follow the heart of the nation — they nearly always do. Local officials will, likewise, follow the lead of their constituents.
I maintain that there are many good hearts that simply do not know or comprehend the depth of the issues that we face. I am likely one of them — but I am learning. Ignoring problems for too long will nearly always lead to extreme action and overreaction. I have seen reports of actions (of a few) that I find reprehensible. There are few combinations more dangerous or toxic than ignorance and anger, or ignorance and an audience.
In the conclusions of the report from 1968 we read this: “The nation is rapidly moving toward two increasingly separate Americas. Within two decades, this division could be so deep that it would be almost impossible to unite.” That statement is a little too prescient for my liking.
Near the end there is this: “There are those who oppose these aims as ‘rewarding the rioters.’ They are wrong. A great nation is not so easily intimidated. We propose these aims to fulfill our pledge of equality and to meet the fundamental needs of a democratic and civilized society — domestic peace, social justice, and urban centers that are citadels of the human spirit. There are others who say violence is necessary — that fear alone can prod the Nation to act decisively on behalf of racial minorities. They too are wrong. Violence and disorder compound injustice; they must be ended.”
It is long past time for people of faith to put the attitudes that have hindered progress behind us. We should be in the business of providing opportunity and equality for all. There are real problems that must be overcome. There are policy changes that must happen — I know this because the ones we have are clearly not working. The path will not be easy for any of us, but we cannot shrink from it.
Sean Niestrath lives and ministers in Madisonville. You may contact him via email at email@example.com.