Are U.S. citizens just ordinary folks, or do we have some special status? Is the United States one country among many, or a nation unique in history?
In short: Are we sinners or saints?
That question confronts what seems to me to be a contradiction at the heart of a common political position among conservative evangelical Christians in the United States today.
Folks with an evangelical bent constantly remind us that no one is without sin, that we all need to be saved through Jesus Christ. From this view, all people are capable of failure, and can be expected to fail, in trying to live up to the standards set in scripture. During the 2000 campaign, George Bush acknowledged he has “a lot of imperfections like anybody else” and that “if you believe that we’re all sinners — as opposed to you’re a sinner and I’m not — then I think it helps you, at least for me.”
At the same time, many of these same people seem to believe the United States can do no wrong in the world, commonly referring to the United States as “the greatest nation on earth,” as the president did in his acceptance speech at September’s Republican convention. Earlier that year, Bush claimed that in the so-called war on terrorism, “We will succeed because of who we are — because even when it is hard, Americans always do what is right.”
So, as individuals we are all sinners, but collectively as a nation we are the greatest? We all need to be saved from our inevitable failures, but when we come together as a nation we always do the right thing? It’s not clear how the individual sinners in a country can join up to create a saintly nation.
Let me be clear: I share the belief that sin is inevitable, though as a secular person I tend to talk about human weaknesses and mistakes rather than sin. I also would argue that the more power (and, hence, the greater capacity to do damage) a person has, the more dangerous those sins become.
I also believe much the same about nations. We should expect the leadership of any nation to fail, and we should be especially worried about the failures of the most powerful countries that can do the most damage.
And, just as we should first and foremost look to correct our own sins as individuals, as citizens we should be responsible for critique of our own country, especially when we live in the most powerful country in the world.
To make good on those moral responsibilities, we have to get — as the title of an excellent documentary film on the subject suggests — “Beyond Good and Evil” (http://mef.tv). By that, I don’t mean that we should abandon the concepts of good and evil, which can help as we struggle to understand the human condition. But we must get beyond the common political discourse in this country that constructs complex political issues in cartoonish fashion, with simplistic notions of good guys and bad guys.
It’s not that there aren’t bad guys in the world. Certainly those who took down the World Trade Center towers were bad guys. But are U.S. political leaders — who routinely lie and distort to create a climate of fear to justify war (whether it’s Democratic leaders during the Vietnam War or Republicans today), and then authorize the use of military tactics that kill large numbers of civilians — really the good guys? Can we think beyond two categories?
The good guys/bad guys framework isn’t adequate to understand the reasons nations go to war, the jockeying for economic domination, or struggles for critical natural resources. That framework is a way to avoid, not deepen, understanding of sin — the crimes of others and the crimes we commit. It is morally lazy.
If we continue to let politicians (and the marketing gurus who sell politicians) get away with such frameworks and language, we undermine the possibility of meaningful discussion and, hence, the possibility of real democracy. And that would truly be a sin.
Robert Jensen — a journalism professor at the University of Texas at Austin and board member of the Third Coast Activist Resource Center (http://thirdcoastactivist.org/) — is the author of “Citizens of the Empire: The Struggle to Claim Our Humanity” and “Writing Dissent: Taking Radical Ideas from the Margins to the Mainstream.” He can be reached at [email protected]