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America's Wretched Refuse

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In the February issue of Christianity Today, Lisa Graham McMinn wrote a thought-provoking review of a recent book by Phil Zuckerman. Zuckerman's book, Society without God: What the Least Religious Nations Can Tell Us about Contentment, is basically an indictment of what he believes is the hypocrisy of "Christian" America. Zuckerman's point is that Americans, whom he describes as being very "religious," actually display less compassion and love toward other people than the mostly irreligious citizens of Scandinavia.


McMinn's review doesn't bring up this point, but I always find it quite convenient that skeptics and atheists want to define America as a "Christian" nation only when it suits their statistics. Even though this country has a rich Christian heritage and Bible verses are literally chiseled into our government and state buildings, skeptics will usually deny this empirical evidence in their attempt to erase Christianity from America's long religious tradition. However, when they want to accuse the American religious community of being less than faithful to their stated beliefs, the story becomes something else entirely. For atheists and agnostics, America is only a Christian nation when it can be used as a club against Christianity itself.

One of McMinn's most important observations comes about midway through her review. While Zuckerman's comparisons of Scandinavia and the United States depend on an "apples to apples" relationship, McMinn points out that it is not this simple:

Most nations, including the United States and Scandinavian countries, have histories that include shining moments of courage, compassion, and prosperity, but also have darker moments of war, slavery, and systemic oppression. Sin cuts through every soul, and through every political body and institution. But nations also have unique features that lead them to develop along different paths.

For instance, Scandinavian countries are smaller and less diverse than we are. The United States is a nation of immigrants, a grand experiment in forging a collective identity from people of different nationalities. We value this diversity enough to commit to the work it requires. We have the harder task of identifying our neighbor as kin because we don't all look alike or come from similar backgrounds or share similar values. Scandinavian countries, as Zuckerman points out, are more homogeneous. Perhaps it's not surprising, then, that strong welfare states emerged in countries where neighborliness often literally meant caring for one's near or distant kin. That we have struggled more than they to embrace our neighbors, and have viewed those who look, talk, or eat differently than we do with some suspicion, makes sense given our history. [1]

McMinn's point should not be overlooked or taken too lightly. This is a crucial fact that is frequently forgotten about our "melting pot" nation. No country on earth has the number of immigrants that America has. In fact, America IS a nation of immigrants. None of us are "from here." The Statue of Liberty stands as a reminder that America is here to take the refugees of the world. A poem by Emma Lazarus adorns the Statue's pedestal which reads:

Not like the brazen giant of Greek fame, 
With conquering limbs astride from land to land; 
Here at our sea-washed, sunset gates shall stand 
A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame 
Is the imprisoned lightning, and her name, 
Mother of Exiles. From her beacon-hand 
Glows world-wide welcome; her mild eyes command 
The air-bridged harbor that twin cities frame. 
"Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp!" cries she 
With silent lips. "Give me your tired, your poor, 
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, 
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore. 
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me, 
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!

America has unique problems because America has unique citizens. As McMinn states: "Americans generally believe that charity should be given freely and not demanded by the state, and that people should pay their own way through life." This does not mean that America is now somehow off the hook for taking care of its citizens, far from it. The biblical example of compassion and responsibility is taught by the Apostle Paul in 2 Thessalonians: "If anyone is not willing to work, then he is not to eat, either" (2 Thessalonians 3:10). In other words, it is because of Christianity that America has the form of individual compassion that it has, rather than the state-run versions that characterize Scandinavian countries. For Zuckerman to then turn around and use this against the American people as being "uncompassionate" is stunning, to say the least. It proves nothing more than the fact that Zuckerman already had his mind made up before he wrote his book. 

McMinn concludes her review by making a very important final point: "Zuckerman sells humanity short. If people are content but no longer care about transcendent meaning and purpose or life beyond death, that's not a sign of greatness but tragic forgetfulness... What does it profit a society if, as this book's jacket notes, it gains 'excellent educational systems, strong economies, well-supported arts, free health care, egalitarian social policies, outstanding bike paths, and great beer,' but loses its soul?" Humanists who want to discount and ridicule the effects of a Christian worldview on a nation are making their determinations on strictly materialistic grounds. For them, a country with better bike paths and free health care is preferred to one with myriad uphill challenges to turning the "huddled masses" and "wretched refuse" into loving neighbors. Interestingly though, the skeptics always choose to live in this country, rather than their so-called egalitarian social paradises.

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[1]  Lisa Graham McMinn, "Learning from Secular Nations," Christianity Today, February 2009, 57-58.

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