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They want to take your history

President Donald Trump giving his nomination acceptance speech at the White House, August 27, 2020
REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque

In his State of the Union—I mean, nomination acceptance—speech last night, President Trump made a series of statements that got me thinking:

  • "We will rekindle new faith in our values, new pride in our history, and a new spirit of unity that can ONLY be realized through love for our country. Because we understand that America is NOT a land cloaked in darkness, America is the torch that enlightens the entire world."

  • "We cannot help but marvel at the miracle that is our Great American Story."

  • "Our opponents believe that America is a depraved nation. We want our sons and daughters to know the truth: America is the greatest and most exceptional nation in the history of the world!"

The speech reminded me how I hate what the far Left has done to American history. I hate how they tell it as an endless litany of oppression and tyranny, that the true beginning of America wasn't the Declaration of Independence in 1776 or the founding of Jamestown in 1607 but the sale of the first slaves to English colonists in 1619. I hate how they take a huge, genuine, and awful theme of our story and make it the whole story. I hate most of all how their standard of purity condemns every American of mostly European ancestry who lived before five minutes ago, such that everything they ever said or did should be rejected and forgotten.

Trump's speech also reminded me how I hate what the far Right has doubled down on in American history. Trump attempted to recount a stirring, sweeping tale of "our American ancestors"—specifically, hardy colonists and westward pioneers. It's a great story worthy of remembrance and honor. Yet his telling also betrayed shocking neglect of how many disembarked on these shores in chains; how every push westward included the slaughter and displacement of indigenous peoples; how a vast expanse of the land available for settlement came from a greedy, manipulative war of conquest that seized half of Mexico; and how many of "our American ancestors" immigrated to this country well after it was fully settled.

The far Left insists on a history of grievance, the far Right on a history of triumph. Each claims that the other wants to deny our past. They're both right.

By contrast, one of my favorite speeches this campaign season came from Barack Obama last week. He stood in Philadelphia and claimed that the American story truly begins with the framing of the Constitution in 1787. He tried to call us back to something different: not to being deserving conquerors or undeserving conquered. Instead, he called us to an idea, a set of principles, and a framework for living them out: representative democracy.

The most powerful part of Obama's speech came when he recalled the lives of Americans who suffered under heartless injustice, exploitation, and disaster: brutalized industrial workers without representation, immigrants "told to go back to where they came from," religious minorities forcibly kept out of the mainstream, and Blacks who were enslaved, lynched, spit on, and denied their constitutional rights. It all could have been the well-worn tale of grievance and the fundamental evil of America that the far Left loves to tell.

But then he said this:

If anyone had a right to believe that this democracy did not work, and could not work, it was those Americans. . . . They were on the receiving end of a democracy that had fallen short all their lives. They knew how far the daily reality of America strayed from the myth. And yet, instead of giving up, they joined together and said somehow, some way, we are going to make this work. We are going to bring those words, in our founding documents, to life.

This right here is the true history of America. America is the story of people who united around some of the best, truest, most beautiful ideas for how humans can live together that anyone has ever thought. And it is the story of how we continually fail to measure up to those ideals.

That's the true story, because it's the story of the human race. Each of us is created good in the image of God, and each of us is pervasively infected by evil we cannot root out. Good and evil are in this same nation, because good and evil are in us all.

The phrase "under God" is important to our national consciousness not because it gives divine blessing to our pride. It is because we need a redeemer, someone above who can forgive our sins and enliven what Lincoln called "the better angels of our nature."

The true story of America is not that our union is a sham to be rejected and replaced by a misnamed "beloved community," a perversion of Dr. King's phrase, where those presently excluded become new excluders.

The true story of America is not that our union is perfect and that anyone who thinks otherwise hates America, and that a perfection that works for a few is safe as long as "we are here and they are not," as Trump said last night to his cheering section at the White House.

Rather, the true story of America is the perpetual quest to form a more perfect union, always humbly recalling our imperfect predecessors as we struggle forward imperfectly today. It is the attempt to catch glimpses of the perfect ideal our elders told us about, even while some of us await the day that this republic gives way to the perfect government of our Lord, Christ, when he comes again.


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