America might need to be made great again but it will not be done by President Donald Trump, Washington DC, or any government bureaucrat. Making America great again will not come from electing a better President or passing new laws. It will come from our homes, churches, families, and clubs. It will come from where you and I are, because what made America great are you and I. The American individual and what we believed. What made America great was what America was. What and where we are and is not permanent or locked in; we can just as easily lose what made us great as we gained it. Ideas are not permeate. To be great, we need to know what made us great.
The first thing that comes to any conservative mind when asked what made America great, is free enterprise. Our devotion to the free market allowed us to become the richest society in the history of the earth. America became one of the first societies that allowed its citizens to get ahead by helping others. Until recent human history, to get ahead you had to help yourself and only yourself; a job which helped others would only keep you down. To paraphrase economist Walter E. Williams, before today, the way great wealth was amassed was by looting, but today great wealth is amassed through serving your fellow man. This system of free market capitalism allowed America to be built up into the richest nation in the world.
Capitalism did not make America great on its own, it had help. I think an indispensable aid to America’s success were our institutions and norms. Our churches, our schools, our civic organizations, neighborhood associations, and our neighbors and family– they made us great. They made us rely on each other instead of the government. These intermediate institutions provided much of the role government has today. They would give common protection, charity, and education. They were not perfect and could not do everything, but they took away our reliance on government. They created a civil society which emphasized each other instead of going to the government to solve problems. Even today, America is the most civically engaged society on earth, although it does not take a genius to realize we are becoming less involved with each other.
This isolation, as Yuval Levin pointed out, is leading to a fracturing of society. While mediating institutions provided a common connection that was not the government, we are losing those connections today. As we become more and more fractured we rely less and less on each other and more and more on government and government agents to solve our problems. Instead of just talking to our neighbor about loud music we call the cops. This is the loss of civic bonds, which kept us together.
Furth more, an equal lose to our institutions is the loss of our norms. Nothing demonstrates this more than the 2016 election, where the winning candidate won on a platform of blowing up the norms. For us conservatives, the value of norms should be obvious. Not blowing up the system is good. Yes, change can be good, but only if it is natural and not revolutionary. As these norms degrade, we go further and further into the wilderness where we are unchained. While I worry less about us being unchained, I still find it troublesome. America is becoming more and more morally accepting or the immoral. As I said in the beginning, America’s greatness comes from her goodness. By rejecting goodness we reject greatness. But while I worry about this, I worry more about the loss of norms when it comes to government. In the last few years, we have seen the government chuck to massive norms. The Senate got rid of the filibuster for all nominees, except Supreme Court nominees (which the Republicans got rid of earlier this year); President Trump got rid of FBI director, an almost unprecedented move. While individual these moves may be fine, tighter, they remove the restraints put on political actors with the ability to use force on the rest of us. These constraints on political actors are just as important for protecting our liberties as legal and constitutional constraints are.
Another factor is America’s reliance on the principles of classical liberalism and the ideas which informed them. From the separation of powers to federalism, to a written constitution, and religious liberty; all these ideas helped make us great. I will not spend much time here since most of this essay eludes at this concept, but these are the basis of the founding ideals of America. A rejection of these is more or less a rejection of America herself. It is saying everything she is built on is false, and while she is not built on a perfect foundation, she is built on a foundation worth fixing and building up.
The last factor I want to explore is America’s Christian history. I would argue all these things I have talked about which make us great are the culmination of 1,300 years of Christian thought on society and government. Nothing certifies the Christian basis of America more than our Declaration of Independence. The second paragraph begins with the specific claim that we are given “unalienable rights” by our creator. While this is not a specifically Christian claim, it does provide a theistic basis to America, but a deeper study of those who realized the rights doctrine and those who believed it strengthens the claim of Christian roots. Furth more, from the countries founding to even today, we have been a majority Christian nation. These provided a specific context to our beliefs. There is a reason that the ideas of unbailable rights caught hold in Christian Europe and America. It was here that there was a Christian basis allowed these ideas to catch hold. Almost no other belief system allows for these ideas.
Although America is a great country, it has never lived up to its ideal but that is okay. Lofty ideas are hard to reach and our ideals were never perfect. It is better to try and fail at an extreme goal that is good, than to lessen your goals and reach them but be short of where you would have fallen with high goals. Humans are flawed, so we should expect our institutions to be similarly flawed. We should always strive to get closer to our goals and improve them where we can but today we are getting further and further away from each. The further we get from our goals the further we get away from being good, and the further we get away from being great.