What Made America Great: Individualism, Liberty, and Self-Control

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What Made America Great

Donald Trump campaigned on ‘Make America Great Again’, but was America ever a great nation? And, supposing she was, what made her great to begin with?

Call me a conservative, but I believe America has been a great nation. Moreover, I want America to rediscover and retain the greatness it once knew, and to build and improve upon those facets of its national character which Heaven has in times past smiled upon.

America has never been a perfect country. This is undeniable. Yet our expectations of finding such when we look back in history make all the difference in the world.

As I heard a popular conservative thinker and speaker recently say, the Left compares America with Utopia and comes away hating her for falling short.

Conservatives, meanwhile, compare America with a world and history books full of other nations past and present. As a result, the response to the imperfections of America is a somber acknowledgement of the obvious: people are flawed. Any group of people will make mistakes and have its share of boneheads and villains. But America, considering the alternatives, is great.

The question is not one of bringing about human perfection – in individuals much less whole communities and nations – here on Earth; this is something only the good Lord above will ultimately do at the second coming of Christ.

No, our expectation and goal should be to make things and people as good as they possibly can be – both to honor God, and to demonstrate love for our neighbor. As Jesus answered the rich young ruler who came questioning about the greatest commandment, we know these two – loving God and loving one another – sum up all the Law and the Prophets.

Learning To Love

Do we instinctively know how to love, though?

To someone on the Left, the answer to this question is dramatically different than if you ask the same of your typical conservative. To the Left, love means not only tolerance of every deviant lifestyle choice under the sun, but also affirmation of it. To criticize is to hate, and hate is evil, unless of course you are criticizing those who disagree with Leftist tenants.

The Left also believes that love requires not so much a protection of life and liberty, but the provision of many goods and services which throughout most of human history have been considered luxuries of the highest order only privileged and dedicated persons would consistently enjoy.

Yet if the question of how to love is wrapped up in an earlier thing we said – that our goal should be not so much perfection as making things and people as good as they can be – then we ought to ask whether people become as good as they can be through the government and society providing for every need and desire relatively free of charge.

The conservative answer to this question is emphatically in the negative. Rather than providing goods and services free of charge, the American conservative desires nothing so much as to have his liberty preserved.

“Give me liberty or give me death,” as Patrick Henry so famously said.

To the Left, this talk of liberty in the face of their Utopian agenda is grossly offensive. Individual liberty is painted as selfish and greedy. Only successful people who’ve benefited from the system as it is want liberty. What about the rest of us, though?

Free to Succeed… Or Not

To that the conservative attempts to explain that to the extent they have been successful, it is due in very large part to their liberty to make their own decisions in life, and then to either reap the natural rewards or penalties.

Never in all the biographies I’ve read or conversations I’ve had with successful people have I heard of one who did not fail at times, and sometimes mightily. And failure hurts! Yet perseverance and the desire to keep on until victory was snatched from the jaws of defeat drove them on. And in the end, they were far better off for having been free to fail for a time because they were also free to succeed.

What the Left takes away from individuals in self-determination is far more costly than what it gives to them in return when an endless parade of indulgent social policies and programs are trotted out to provide for – perhaps more honestly to bribe – the voting public.

This is the case not only because broad-based and long-term social programs create dependency in the sense that persons wait on the government to provide for their material needs; it is perhaps more importantly the case because strings are always attached. Along with the material provision come a host of controlling regulations, stipulations, and laws which are designed to steer the public in the direction of supposed progress.

Yet in losing our freedom to choose, we lose more than our ability to fail. We also are deprived of our opportunity to succeed.

What Made America Great

It is a mischaracterization when the Left nowadays portrays America as a nation founded by rich white Europeans on the backs of black African slaves and at the expense of red indigenous tribes. As is always the case, there is more to the story.

A student of world history, and especially of European history knows that two tectonic conflicts led to the discovery and colonizing of the United States of America.

In brief, these were: first, the clash of nominally Christian Europe and the militant Islamic world; and second, the struggle between Roman Catholicism and the various churches and traditions known collectively as the Protestant Reformation.

The centuries-long war between Islam and Christianity is typically painted as a conflict in which, again, oppressive white Europeans launched unprovoked Crusades against the sophisticated empires of the Middle East. Au contraire, it was actually an existential crisis in which Islam attempted to conquer the world, and in which Christian Europe fought for its survival against a determined and relentless foe.

As a result of this conflict, explorers set out across the oceans in search of ways to trade with East Asia which did not leave them vulnerable to being either pillaged by Muslims in the middle, or else having to pay hefty bribes. In the process of searching for this, Europeans like Christopher Columbus found the Americas, a land of great beauty and natural bounty which had been lost to the Old World for millennia.

Initially, the conquerors and colonizers of the New World were the Catholic Spanish and Portuguese empires. And the descendants of these still today hold sway in South and Central America.

Yet to the North, the English prevailed. If this had not been the case, America as we know it would never have existed.

The Protestant Legacy

In the 13 colonies which would ultimately declare independence and become the United States of America, conscientious objectors of every stripe made their home. Protestants of every kind who had been persecuted and lived as second-class citizens, or else been not fully free to live and teach and worship according to the dictates of their conscience in Europe – these made their home in the New World of New England’s colonies in North America.

If there had not been any Protestant Reformation, there would not have been a United States of America. And if there had not been persecution of dissidents and objectors in Europe – both by Catholic nations against Protestant minorities, or from one Protestant faction toward another within its nation’s bounds, there would not have been the hunger for freedom that drove men, women, and children to brave the dangerous voyage across the Atlantic.

As a result of this makeup, the earliest members of those colonies, when they came together to form their own system of government, preferred liberty. And in place of a government which would decide for them the minutest details of righteous living and then reward or punish them according to their submission, the United States of America prioritized individuals and their consciences being free to make their own decisions, so long as those decisions did not unjustly deprive their fellows of life and liberty.

Yet it is important to point out that America was not only founded as a rejection of religious persecution. In a positive sense, America was founded because individual freedom was critical to a happy, prosperous life. And inherent to a happy, prosperous life was living according to the dictates of one’s conscience.

In other words, individualism, liberty, and self-control made America great.

Suggested Reading

Learning from the conflict between Christian Europe and the Islamic world made America great.

Empires of the Sea: The Siege of Malta, the Battle of Lepanto, and the Contest for the Center of the World, by Roger Crowley

Learning the importance of liberty from the Protestant Reformation made America great.

Reformations: The Early Modern World, 1450-1650, by Carlos M. N. Eire

Eric Metaxas has written an excellent book on the subject of what made America great. You should read it.

If You Can Keep It: The Forgotten Promise of American Liberty, by Eric Metaxas

Follow Garrett Mullet:

Christian, husband to a darling wife, and father to seven children - I enjoy pipe-smoking, playing strategy games on my computer, listening to audio books, and writing. When I'm not asking you questions out loud, I'm endlessly asking myself silent questions in my head. I believe in God's grace, hard work, love, patience, contemplation, and courage.