The timing of our Czech Republic mission allowed us a rare experience: being 35,000 feet over the United States on the evening of the Fourth of July.
At first, I had guesstimated that we’d be too early and too far north that night to see fireworks.
As the sun set a couple hours out of Chicago, I opened the window and glanced down, and my breath caught. Pinprick flares of multicolored light were visible against the dark land in every direction, as far as the eye could see, intensifying around a small town just to the south. I alerted the others and we stared out with delight. After consulting the onboard computers, we realized that the town to the south could only be Albany, NY. We were seeing the Fourth from the air after all!
Then we looked ahead of us and beheld a massive web of light terminating along a solid line: a coastal city. It was Boston. Where it all began. The tea party, the Boston Massacre, the first clashes at Lexington and Concord. The city obviously knew its history that night (or they were celebrating because I was leaving). The town was ablaze with tiny flashes of light like a Star Wars space battle. And as we flew over the coastline, still more fireworks: cruise ships off the coast were throwing their own displays. It was a sight I’ll not soon forget.
I must confess. Over the years, I’ve grown a bit cynical about the whole America deal.
Not that my opinion is anything special.
I’m not ignorant of the liberties we enjoy or the sacrifices made to secure them. I’m a little weirded out by the conflation of patriotism and Christianity that’s prevalent here, that’s all. We are not “God’s country”. God never made a covenant with the United States. We might have been God’s tool, and that is an honor. But God is primarily about our holiness and our becoming like him, not securing comfort or nationalism. The latter seems perilously close these days to replacing the former as the priority of the American church.
But that night, seeing the country celebrate beneath me (did I mention the moon was out?), I softened. Maybe it was a lesser version of the Overview Effect, wherein astronauts feel linked to humanity by witnessing it from above, where lines of division vanish.
I know I remembered one thing: the real miracle of America is religious freedom.
Some people are more cynical than I. They see America as a monolith of religious oppression that shoves minorities into the margins and wounds those who are different.
But I think of the countries where homosexuals are thrown from rooftops, not denied wedding cakes. Or the western Europe of the Middle Ages, where practicing anything besides the state-approved brand of Christianity could get one branded, ostracized, displaced or killed. There’s theocracy for you. The United States of 1917, much more a Judeo-Christian nation than it’s considered today, was amongst the (aagghh a moth just flew into my eye, dang late-night blogging) first world powers to grant their women the right to vote. We are not without our flaws. But we are, and always have been, one of the world’s most progressive peoples.
Our liberty was too serendipitously arranged to ignore. The British lost the Revolutionary War as much asthe colonies won it; a generation’s greatest thinkers gathered in one place at a crucial time; a history of English democratic, economic, and religious out-of-the-box traditions were in place to provide it all with fertile ground. The Reformation had reawakened the individual faith of the New Testament, but it still needed somewhere to sprout.
Doubt the Founding Fathers’ commitment to John 14:6 Christianity if you must, but our nations’ tumultuous beginnings tells a story nevertheless: building blocks being moved, levers and forces of history turning, not to glorify a nation but God.
That is the true miracle of America. Not democracy, capitalism, military strength, or even civic virtue, remarkable as they are – for why gain the whole world but lose your soul?
America still has a ways to go.
But if worshiping the one true God through Jesus Christ is the highest aim of humanity, than the freedom to worship is the true treasure of the United States of America, the highest prize captured by those who have given their lives to defend her.
That is something even the cynical believer can appreciate, I think.