The Common Good

'We're the Greatest': Empty Boast or Call to Action?

I believe we can seize this future together -- because we are not as divided as our politics suggest; we're not as cynical as the pundits believe; we are greater than the sum of our individual ambitions; and we remain more than a collection of red states and blue states. We are, and forever will be, the United States of America. And together, with your help, and God’s grace, we will continue our journey forward, and remind the world just why it is that we live in the greatest nation on Earth.

-- President Barack Obama, 7 November 2012  

Yesterday I joined a Facebook exchange about whether the United States is indeed the greatest nation on Earth. By quite a few objective criteria, I argued, we trail other nations: health care accessibility, lifespan, maternal mortality, education, infrastructure development, employment, equality of opportunity ... well, the list is frighteningly long. We are clearly not the greatest nation on earth by any standards that people from other nations would accept, and we are becoming less great every year (for a European view of America's decline, read this sobering article - in English - from Monday's Der Spiegel).  

Yesterday I also told my two little dogs -- Muffin the poodle mix and Tiggy-Winkle the terrier -- that they are the best little dogs in the world. By quite a few objective criteria, I am deluded about my dogs. Tiggy  digs holes in upholstered furniture, and she barks so much that she was nearly kicked out of obedience school ("Just give up," the trainer advised; "she's going to bark, whatever you do"). Muffin snores, refuses to cooperate with her groomer, and bites large dogs. But I love my dogs passionately. I wouldn't trade them for any Westminster champions or obedience winners. Several friends, watching me interact with Tiggy and Muffin, have said they would like to be my dogs.  

Some people who say America's the greatest really believe that we have the best health care, the best education, the highest incomes, the most liberty, the least corruption, and the most opportunities to succeed. Sadly, these people are deluded. That may have been true in the 1950s, but it is not true today.  

However, I suspect that most people who say America's the greatest, including our president, aren't thinking about data at all. They are saying they love America passionately and that they wouldn't consider moving elsewhere even if they found a country that surpasses America in every quantifiable area. They are saying they believe in our founding fathers' vision of America as summarized by Abraham Lincoln: "a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal." They are saying they love the spacious skies, the amber waves of grain, the purple mountain majesties, the fruited plain - and especially the patriot dream that sees beyond the years (I really think "America the Beautiful" should be our national anthem). They are saying they are willing to work hard to make the dream the reality.

The people who truly believe America is greater than any other country need to check their data. They might also want to read Jesus' story about the Pharisee and the publican (Luke 18:10-14) or Percy Bysshe Shelley's "Ozymandias" or Carl Sandburg's "Four Preludes on Playthings in the Wind." Hubris does not make America strong. To the contrary, by blinding us to our problems, it keeps us from fixing them.

But the people who know that America has serious problems and yet love her anyway - love her so much that in their enthusiasm they sometimes say America is the greatest nation on Earth - are the people who can lead our country back to equality of opportunity, who can work to improve our schools, our health care, our roads, our businesses, our environment, our immigration policies, and our working conditions. Most important of all, these are the people who can encourage us to be concerned not only for ourselves but also for one another.

When people in other countries hear Americans say America is the greatest nation on Earth, they tend to think this is an empty boast from a nation of bullies (after all, we do have the biggest military on earth, outspending the next 13 countries combined). If, however, they understood us to mean We love America and want to make it great, I suspect they would be more indulgent toward us, even if they didn't care for our word choice. In the interest of international understanding, we would probably do well to change our diction.

In the late 1930s, as nationalism intensified and much of the world was on the brink of war, Lloyd Stone and Georgia Harkness wrote words to the tune Finlandia that express American patriotism at its best. Here are two of its verses:

This is my song, O God of all the nations, A song of peace for lands afar and mine. This is my home, the country where my heart is; Here are my hopes, my dreams, my sacred shrine. But other hearts in other lands are beating, With hopes and dreams as true and high as mine.   My country’s skies are bluer than the ocean, And sunlight beams on cloverleaf and pine. But other lands have sunlight too and clover, And skies are everywhere as blue as mine. O hear my song, O God of all the nations, A song of peace for their land and for mine.


This is the language of hope and love, not of bluster.

It is the language President Obama used in his victory speech:

What makes America exceptional are the bonds that hold together the most diverse nation on earth. The belief that our destiny is shared; that this country only works when we accept certain obligations to one another and to future generations. The freedom which so many Americans have fought for and died for come with responsibilities as well as rights. And among those are love and charity and duty and patriotism. That's what makes America great.

It is the language that can lead us to "crown [our] good with brotherhood / From sea to shining sea." And beyond.

LaVonne Neff is an amateur theologian and cook; lover of language and travel; wife, mother, grandmother, godmother, dogmother; perpetual student, constant reader, and Christian contrarian. She blogs at Lively Dust and at The Neff Review.

Photo credit: US President Barack Obama pauses during his nomination acceptance speech at the Time Warner Cable Arena in Charlotte, North Carolina, on September 6, 2012 on the final day of the Democratic National Convention by ROBYN BECK/AFP/GettyImages.

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