Vail Daily column: President’s faith shapes his patriotism
President Obama practices tough love when speaking about our country’s achievements and mistakes. By transforming errors into excellence, the president expects the U.S. to improve.
He takes his cue from a quotation in Thomas Jefferson’s note pad, which colonials called a “commonplace book.” TJ copied Euripides’ formula for improvement, which works for individuals and nations. This ancient Greek philosopher observed, “For with slight efforts, how should one obtain great results? It is foolish even to desire it.”
President Obama sizes up U.S. history. Like Euripides, he believes worthy effort produces worthy results. Citizens don’t do our nation any favors who gloss over mistakes or half-heartedly admit the U.S. sometimes erred.
Isn’t that how a wise parent gets the most from children? Challenge them to admit blunders. Then renew effort not to repeat mistakes or fudge on screw-ups.
The president’s critics accuse him of being too hard on our motherland. They question Obama’s patriotism. Last February, after hearing the president apologized for national deficiencies, former New York City Mayor Rudolph Giuliani blasted President Obama, declaring, “I do not believe the president loves America.”
Such reckless rhetoric is ridiculous. Instead of reciting history, warts and all, Giuliani spins an unsullied litany of past events. Historians refer to Giuliani’s use of literary Lysol on a marred national record as hagiography. In this sanitized version of our nation’s past, individuals are edified. Shoddy happenings are given a passing grade. Then history sounds like some family Christmas letters in which everything is A-OK.
‘Dark Side of their Character’
America’s 18th century equivalent to Billy Graham, George Whitefield — the most famous man in the U.S. and Great Britain — warned in his 1747 autobiography about hagiography. “In the accounts of good men which I have read,” he wrote, “I have observed that writers of them have been partial. They have given us the bright, but no the dark side of their character.
“This, I think, proceeded from a kind of pious fraud, lest mentioning persons’ faults should encourage others to sin. It cannot, I am sure, proceed from the wisdom that comes from above (that is, God).”
When President Obama admits the U.S. has erred, his Christian faith prompts him not to spread a pious fraud of our nation’s innocence. He believes citizens and nations can improve themselves. This confidence for improvement is rooted in biblical insight. In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus compared doing better to a healthy fruit tree: “Every sound tree bears good fruit, but the infected tree bears evil fruit” (Matthew 7:17).
Improve, Do better, Extend a Hand
Go forward, says President Obama, after we have messed up. Improve, do better and extend a neighborly hand. Some citizens tie their faith to doctrine, what’s correct belief. Others focus on a mystical experience that feels as if God is near. Still, more peg to a key scripture verse. In contrast, the president’s faith is anchored to moral endeavor. Improving is the key tonic for what ails individuals and the U.S.
When Rudy Giuliani crows about national achievement and underplays our country’s mistakes, President Obama rejects such syrupy sanctimony. Conservatives who say God prefers the U.S. over other nations sound like a mother bragging about her favorite child. Wise parents, however, acknowledge each child’s moral scorecard has credits and debits.
Benjamin Franklin exposed how silly such preferential treatment is. In 1778, he wrote “The Petition of Letter Z,” a satire about a preferred letter in the alphabet soup of nations. In it, the letter Z, bummed at being the caboose in the alphabet’s train, complains, “That he is not only plac’d at the tail of the alphabet, when he had as much right as any other to be at the head; but is, by the injustice of his enemies totally excluded from the word ‘wise,’ and his place injuriously filled by a little, hissing, crooked, serpentine, venomous letter called ‘S.’”
Who inspired President Obama to shun designating the U.S. as God’s favorite nation?
Self-Interest Blights Intentions
Ethicist Reinhold Niebuhr serves as the president’s biblical mentor. For 30 years, Niebuhr taught at New York’s Union Theological Seminary. He made Time magazine’s cover in 1948, a year in which the U.S. reigned as the world’s super-power. He’s ranked America’s premier Protestant theologian during the first half of the 20th century.
Niebuhr believed self-interest blights a nation’s best-intentions, pride contaminates its purest motives, and patriotism gets sullied by jingoistic pride from citizens who disregard past mistakes.
“Nations will always find it more difficult than the individuals to behold the beam that is in their own eye while they observe the mote that is in their brother’s eye; and individuals find it difficult enough,” wrote Niebuhr. “A perennial weakness of the moral life in individuals is simply raised to the nth degree in national life. Let a nation be accused of hypocrisy and it shrinks back in pious horror at the charge.”
President Obama’s critics cast suspicion on his Christian faith, saying he lacks love for the U.S. They reject Niebuhr’s warnings against national self-aggrandizement as un-American rants.
What’s more American, however, than to admit faults, improve and do better?
The Rev. Dr. Jack R. Van Ens is a Presbyterian minister who heads the nonprofit, tax exempt Creative Growth Ministries (www.thelivinghistory.com), which enhances Christian worship through dynamic storytelling and dramatic presentations aimed to make God’s history come alive.