“Make America Great Again” is undeniably a culturally polarizing phrase and phenomenon that has been remarketed and recycled from past presidential campaigns. The white letters emblazoned on the fiery red hats and blue flags flood campaign rallies across America in support for the United State’s 45th President. The question that phrase raises, however, has yet to be answered: when was America ever “great”?
Hip hop artist Andy Mineo asks the question directly in his song “Reflections” from his album Work in Progress: “‘Make America Great Again’, I’m like which version? / We talkin’ pre-slavery or post-? / We talkin, before or after women could vote? / We talkin’ bout this land before or after we stole it?”
We do not need the label of a “Christian” nation, political party or government to be considered great, especially if we aren’t willing to apply the Christian principles of justice, mercy, forgiveness, grace, and service to our neighbor that Jesus embodied. These are important unanswered questions. But what if I told you there actually was a brief moment in America’s history that was at least taking steps towards “greatness”? Would that reshape your opinion of the phrase? Would you be willing to revisit such history and truly embark on a path towards American greatness? Why does America being “great” even matter? And what does greatness even mean?
If we use the word “great” from a culturally Christian perspective and walk in the truth about our country’s history, we could take steps to implement opportunities for the flourishing and stability of ourselves and our neighbors. But for us to venture on a path of prominence, we must make an honest confession of the effects sin has on our country today, which can only be done when we set aside our pride and heed the words of Yeshua of Nazareth, who told his disciples that the greatest of them must be servants, “for whoever promotes himself will be humbled, and whoever humbles himself will be promoted” (Matthew 23:11).
A brief survey of America’s flawed history reveals that our government has attempted to position itself for greatness in terms of using its power to serve the lowliest in its caste system, formerly enslaved citizens. That moment is known as Reconstruction, the decade or so immediately following the Civil War (1865–1877).
The Civil War was fought between Americans exclusively over the economics and question of slavery. Southern states who committed treason by breaking the law and forming their own “nation,” otherwise known as the “Confederate States of America,” or the Confederacy, fought for the right to own human beings. The Union defeated this movement, in large part because of the more than 180,000 free and formerly enslaved men who were allowed to fight against their former oppressors.
Following the surrender of the Confederate rebellion, the next task was trying to figure out how to unite the splintered country. This is where the faulty journey towards “greatness” began. But how can you unite a country where one one predominant group perceives their counterpart countrymen as subhuman? If you have a functioning government, you can use the power of politics to at least dignify the personhood of that formerly subjugated and dehumanized group, which is what the United States government did. As a result, a series of political steps were taken to give African Americans the opportunity to take part in a culture of equity. Many desired to work for themselves and reconnect with their families and friends who were separated due to the inhumane economics of slavery.
So the first political step was to make slavery illegal, and Congress did so by drafting the 13th Amendment in 1865. Except for one terrible clause that would have centuries-long effects on America’s prison system and would essentially re-enslave many African Americans by another name (criminals), the 13th Amendment at least acknowledged that the domestic slave trade and the ownership of people was illegal. But however flawed this clause was, this was the first time America would acknowledge some decency of human dignity to African Americans, effectively dignifying everyone by the law.
In an anti-racist attempt to further dignify the personhood of African Americans, several other political measures were taken by the United States Congress. The Freedmen’s Bureau was created which existed to help reunite trafficked children, parents, grandparents, and spouses. Additionally, the dubiously flawed Southern Homestead Act of 1862 set aside millions of acres for poor black and white people for an opportunity to till the land, save money, and build wealth. Not everyone could afford to build on these government-issued lands let alone having the necessary tools especially when considering the formerly enslaved who owned close to nothing in most cases.
There’s not enough space here to outline all the stories and measures taken to try levelling the playing field for black and white poor people (check out this report from the Equal Justice Initiative for more information), but some of these progressive initiatives included improved civil rights, education, state facilities, and transportation; expanded voting and (married) women’s rights; repealing black codes; the empowerment and encouragement from black institutions like the AME church; creating public schools and Historically Black Colleges and Universities; expanding hospitals, orphanages, and mental institutions; building programs (bridges, new roads, railroads) that provided job opportunities for poor blacks and whites. And to help pay for these progressive measures, the government issued bonds and raised taxes for large landowners (who gained their wealth from previously enslaved blacks) while decreasing taxes for poor southern farmers.
Additionally, more than 600 previously free and enslaved African Americans were elected to southern state legislatures, and even more occupied other positions of power like sheriffs, judges, and city councilmen. Furthermore, the Fourteenth Amendment in 1866 granted U.S. citizenship to all people born or naturalized in the United States equal protection under the law and prohibition of any state’s attempt to deprive a citizen’s right without due process of law. Four years after that, the Fifteenth Amendment prevented U.S. citizens from being denied the right to vote because of race, color, or previous condition of servitude.
But if there was all this progress during the era of Reconstruction, what happened? When our forefathers and ancestors were finally converging on greatness—using the resources of our government to uplift the lowest of our caste—why are margins continually growing wider in our country’s wealth gap as a result of our historically inherent racist economic policies? Why are there still clear indications of voter suppression today? Why is there this perceptibly obscured clarion call to “Make America Great Again”?
Delving into such questions and revealing how America’s government began reshaping American culture and bringing to light the darkness associated with it will undoubtedly be labeled divisive and un-American. But as Andy Mineo raps, “This isn’t anti-patriotic, I’m just tellin’ the truth,” which is what history helps us do here.
As you can imagine, people then, like now, don’t like the truth. It’s uncomfortable, which is why they try to “change the topic” like Mineo also raps on “Reflections.” Southern whites and former Confederate sympathizers were not thrilled to remove themselves from a lie that relegated their neighbors to beasts of burden.
As amnesty was granted to nearly all Confederate soldiers and sympathizers, racial violence and unjust laws were enforced, and mass acts of terror on the Black community were tolerated. Active and silent white supremacists churned race riots, burned down churches, and successful black communities. They stole or destroyed ballot boxes in predominantly black communities. They enforced “black codes” and unconstitutional laws that made African Americans become slaves by other names—sharecroppers or “criminals.” They disenfranchised many black and poor people, and are still doing it today in states like Florida, Texas, Wisconsin, and 17 others.
Slavery was no longer legal, but the chains of deception, hate, ignorance, jealousy, and pride were never kept in place to ensure the lowest level of dignity and civility could be realized for our country to be great. Instead, after southerners effectively stole the election of 1876, they only relented under one condition: that federal troops be removed from southern states—soldiers who were the last line of defense for its terrorized citizens in the south.
So why skim the surface of all this Reconstruction history to discuss making America great? What does that have to do with our culture today? First, it’s important that we do not conflate the relationship between our Christian witness with being an American. The danger of intertwining our faith with American patriotism—whether it be for a liberal or conservative cause—can have devastating effects for our neighbors. Kathryn Freeman recently discussed these types of dangers by reflecting on Hitler’s successful infiltration of Nazi soldiers in the German church.
We do not need the label of a “Christian” nation, political party or government to be considered great, especially if we aren’t willing to apply the Christian principles of justice, mercy, forgiveness, grace, and service to our neighbor that Jesus embodied.
Secondly, if our idea for creating a culture of American greatness is centralized around a theme of considering what’s best for our neighbor rather than ourselves, then it would be a considerably noble rallying cry to support and wave our flags for. It’s the same reason so many churches, communities and companies were unashamed to emblazon and declare “Black Lives Matter”–without unnecessary caveats–in and on their sermons, websites, cars, and protests following the murders of Ahmad Arbury, Breonna Taylor, and George Floyd. For that brief moment, America was realizing that our country can only be great when we deny ourselves for the sake and dignity of our neighbors by seeking justice, doing mercy, and advocating for our historically disadvantaged, silenced, and underprivileged neighbors.
The summer of 2020 was a short time when we acknowledged such atrocities across ethnicities, class, and party lines, countering what it means for us to flourish as a people. Similar to the era of Reconstruction, we were using the responsibility of our politics to form a culture that was happy to engage in enlightening conversations and actions in ways that reflected in our governmental policies. Our call remains to use the power God gave us to push against fear, violence, and divisiveness by using our voice and our votes to love our neighbor as ourselves.
But also similar to the era Reconstruction, many have allowed fear and pride to overtake them, which leads to our third point: we mustn’t allow the fear of the unknown to feed our lust for power in exchange for empowering our neighbors. Leaders have successfully tapped into our culture of fear and pride-based rationalizations to suppress their neighbors rather than to invest in them. Unfortunately, believers of Jesus too have abandoned our call to action for the “least of these” to maintain the status quo for the majority.
Author and colleague Kaitlyn Schiess posed a series of very important questions for us to consider in her debut book The Liturgy of Politics: Spiritual Formation for the Sake of Our Neighbor. She asks, “But what if neither our salvation nor our sanctification are for us? What if the whole story isn’t primarily about us and our personal growth? What if God’s redemptive plan is the reconciliation of the whole world, and our personal salvation is one part of a larger sweep of redemption? And if that’s all true, what would our salvation look like?”
These questions encompass and challenge the heart and entirety of our Christian life, including at the voting booth. What would voting look like if our voting wasn’t primarily for us? What if we weren’t using one of our responsibilities as voters to simply maintain our comforts, but to sacrifice for the good of another? Perhaps we wouldn’t be overcome with the hopelessness that binds us from stepping foot in a voting booth out of fear of “supporting” or selecting the “wrong” candidate.
So yes, we can make America great, but only as far as we are willing to deny ourselves, similar to the way we briefly started to organize our government during the era of Reconstruction. That era brought about much push-back, violence and flawed legislation, but they were among the more consequential steps toward ensuring and acknowledging the dignity and image of God for its citizens and immigrants.
In that way, making America “great” isn’t so much of an ideal for saving the country’s economy or status, as much as it is for saving and advocating for its people inside and around its borders with all the privileges we’ve been blessed with. We still have much further to go regardless of what the outcome is of this year’s election, but we need not wait for an election to make America great from a Christian’s perspective.
Andy Mineo closes out his line of questioning in “Reflections” about when America was great by connecting us to a formulaic—yet simplistic—path of reconstruction toward greatness which is rooted in active repentance. “It’s clear that we still got a problem / But until we admit our past / There’s no way the future could have progress.”