One Nation Under God

  • Sumo

ONE NATION UNDER GOD:  What does it mean?

You hear it all around you—a persistent murmur of dissatisfaction with the way modern America compares with the America of one, two, or three generations ago. It’s an ever-more-insistent chorus, affirming an ever-more-unfavorable comparison with an America that once was.

It finds its talking points easy enough. They’re the daily headlines. The news of increasing trade deficits. Of manufacturing jobs farmed out to other nations. Declining American status abroad. Schoolchildren’s declining academic performances (compared to other nations’, as well as to this nation’s own past performances). Apathy about moral education. Apathy about conduct in public office. A burgeoning criminal inmate population. Revolving-door justice systems. High divorce rates. Victim mentalities. Vulgarity and lewdness in the entertainment media.

In anther sign of the times, schoolchildren here and there have drawn the media’s attention—and its somber consideration—by their shunning of the pledge of allegiance.

As we pack this baggage ever deeper into the 21st century, it seems a fitting time to look back at the dawning of the previous century. The 20th Century. America’s Century.

That America burned brightly with promise. That America was the most inventive, industrious, enterprising, prosperous, positive, generous, creative, confident, and—maybe the best-remembered trait of all—hardest-working nation of any that had yet appeared on the earth.

It was an agrarian nation. It was those folks off the farm and ranch who were filling the factories, universities, boardrooms, and research-and-development laboratories. It was a brilliant country, but as its best minds have often told us, the biggest breakthroughs were one percent inspiration and 99 percent perspiration.

That America of old was a high-achieving America. We are a people who are heirs to that native ability and natural predisposition. Application is all that is lacking. What can we do to ourselves, or say to ourselves, to make us apply ourselves as did those Americans of 100 years ago?

You’ll find no shortage of observers and political pundits today who’ll say that we need to re-discover, or re-instill, the work ethic that made America what it was.

It’s strange, though, what has happened to that phrase in the past generation or two. Though we hear it called a “work ethic” today, back then it was usually referred to as “the Judeo-Christian work ethic.” Why would one generation consistently associate it with religion while another consistently ignore such a connection?

Why “Judeo-Christian” at all? The “Judeo,” of course, refers to the Jewish religion. It’s linked here with the Christian religion because Christianity came into the world through the Jewish nation, and still shares many traditions, roots, and values with it, including the “work ethic” associated with both.

It seems that the words “Judeo-Christian” were linguistic casualties of the culture wars. To the politically correct, any reference to religion smacks of judgmentalism. And anyway, isn’t the modern term “work ethic” just an abbreviation of the earlier term?

No. It’s not. A “work ethic” is only that. It’s only ambition or dedication. A Judeo-Christian work ethic is another thing entirely. A Judeo-Christian work ethic bespeaks not an ambition but a duty and commitment to one’s Maker. It is not about serving a country, or a people, or a community, though those benefit in indirect or secondary ways. Least of all is it about serving oneself, or pulling oneself up by one’s bootstraps. But in America today, when people talk about bettering society, they routinely talk in such terms. When they talk of creating a better educational system it is so that they will have a better educational system—nothing more than that. They strive to do a good public work simply for the benefit of having a good public work. There’s nothing in it of eternity or giving glory to one’s Maker or doing any good that stands higher than the immediate matter at hand.

Not so—or not as much so—with those earlier Americans. With them, the overarching concern was God’s will. They didn’t make their sacrifices to serve only an America, or even mainly an America, but their sacrifices usually did. Even in matters of making or saving money, they applied themselves so that they would be abler instruments, to yield yet more for the higher cause. They were one nation under God, with the emphasis on the “under.” The stakes were always infinitely high. The motivations were as strong and selfless as motivations can be.

No, not everyone then was Jewish or Christian. But each lived beside or between those who were, and the influence spread, as leavening spreads through a loaf of bread. As the saying goes, a rising tide lifts all ships.

America cannot completely secularize its public affairs and still have the same country it had before. Doing so gives it a different kind of thing. To take religion out of public affairs and public discourse is not to exercise some kind of high-mindedness. It doesn’t liberate. If anything, it restricts. It doesn’t uplift. If anything, it demoralizes.

The good schools, the just courts, the motivated citizenry, the enduring public works—these can’t be the ultimate goals if we are to have an America such as those earlier Americans had. These things have to be serendipity. They must be the happy accidents, the byproducts of a different kind of life.

A nation that became great because its people sought to make it great—that’s something that has probably never happened in the history of the world.

We’ll never have an America like our forefathers had until having a great America is a matter of secondary importance to us, as it was to them.

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