Pastor Lui Tran

What Makes America Great?

Driving my children to school every morning, I usually turn on the radio and listen to politicians announce their presidential candidacy. The common theme of lamentation across the political spectrum is the sense that (a) the United States lost its greatness in the world and is headed in the wrong direction and (b) the American Dream is in crisis. With the U.S. economy still in recovery, it is increasingly difficult for hard- working Americans to get ahead, while at the same time middle-class families struggle to make ends meet. Recently, a real-estate-mogulturned-reality-TV-host formally announced his candidacyboasting that his business expertise and personal wealth would make him become “the greatest creator of jobs God ever created” if elected presidentand concluded his 45-minute speech with the dramatic pronouncement “the American Dream is dead” and the grandiose claim “I will restore it!” to thunderous applause of the audience. I didn’t know if I should cringe, cry or choke but decided to do neither because the morning rush-hour traffic demanded my full attention. So I will leave it to your political acumen to figure out the identity of this candidate and judge for yourselves the merits of his agenda.

The problem, the political right and left agree, is economic inequality. As to the solution, however, the opinions differ. While liberals want to level the playing field by raising the minimum wage for workers, conservatives want to cut taxes for the rich to create jobs. Depending on which economic gospel we follow, America the Beautiful can reach the Promised Land if we pour more money into either the proletarian class or the capitalist bourgeoisie. Karl Marx would have been happy to see his intellectual legacy at work during a presidential election campaign in the land of hedge-fund managers and corporate tycoons.

In his New-York-Times-bestselling book Coming Apart, Charles Murray points to a deeper problem in America. The social scientist offers data evidence showing the emergence of two classes—a new “upper class” and new “lower class”—separated by education, wealth and geographic location. This alone is not new. What is new, however, is the fact that they have little in common, little knowledge of and virtually no interaction with each other, as if they were living in two different worlds. They no longer share the same values that defined American identity for over two centuries. Murray identifies four “founding virtues” on which this country was built: industriousness, honesty, marriage, and religiosity. Research studies show that all four have been in decline since the 1960swith the fastest drop occurring among the lower classcoinciding with the rise in poverty, broken families, criminality and social dysfunction, thereby suggesting a strong correlation between socio-economic problems and the waning of founding virtues in the United States. What made this country great and the American Dream possible in the first place was a citizenry that practiced these founding virtues. A strong work ethic, respect for the rule of law, healthy marriages and families combined with deep religious convictions and involvement in faith communities is what distinguished Americans from the rest of the world, as the French aristocrat Alexis de Tocqueville observed in 1835. These virtues are founding because they are foundational to a prosperous, peaceful and democratic society. We could discard Murray’s controversial findings as right-wing talk but would do so at our peril.

Numerous scholars have written about the influence of the Founding Fathers’ religious beliefs on the drafting of the U.S. Constitution. The connection between the founding virtues and the Scriptures of the Old and New Testament is too strong to ignore. Yet, saying that this country was built on Judeo-Christian principles and should remain so could draw the opprobrium of the social media police in today’s politically correct culture. But I am saying it anyway because I believe the truth shall set us free.

Jesus once said, “But everyone who hears these words of mine and does not put them into practice is like a foolish man who built his house on sand. The rain came down, the streams rose, and the winds blew and beat against that house, and it fell with a great crash(Mt 7:26). Christ’s admonition proved to be true first for the Jews who lost their independence and land in 136 A.D., and then for the Roman Em- pire, the ancient superpower, that fell in 476 A.D. The demise of the latter should be a cautionary tale for the sole superpower of the twenty- first century. Rome did not fall simply because its emperors were incompetent crooks who allowed barbarian hordes to invade its territory, as commonly believedthough moral decay and barbarian incursion certainly played a role. It fell because by the fifth century the vast Empire was home to multiple nations and ethnic groups, who had nothing in common other than their Roman citizenship. In other words, there was no ideological or socio-cultural “glue” holding together the complex fabric of Roman society, causing the erosion of legal, political and reli- gious institutions and the ultimate collapse of central government. All signs seem to indicate that history is bound to repeat itself two millennia later this side of the Atlantic.

It is time to rebuild the American Project on a rock-solid foundationthe founding virtues. That being said, it would be unrealistic and, some would say, even unconstitutional, to expect public schools and governmental institutions to inculcate them. This responsibility falls on the Church (with a capital C) not only because it is its mission but also because it is the best thing the Church has to offer the world. No other institution is better qualified and equipped to teach virtues and values than the Church. The body of Christ is at its best when it faithfully carries out its mission in the face of fierce opposition, when it proclaims the Word of God and makes disciples of Christ for the transformation of the world.

It’s late in the afternoon and time to go pick up my children at school. I am getting into my car and turn on the radio. Maybe another candidate is going to announce his or her intention to run for president...