Jesus, Socrates, and Historic American Understandings of “Greatness”

One question we think Christians in the US should wrestle with in response to this is: If pride is a sin and all glory should go to God, what should we think of aspirations to political greatness? Can this kind of greatness even be truly unifying?

In his Address to Congress on February 28th, President Trump offered the nation a speech replete with invocations of strength and pride. While not exactly conciliatory, the message did contain moments that aspired to be unifying, most of which were connected to the President’s focus on “restoring the nation’s greatness” and bolstering national pride. This was in keeping with his rhetoric as a candidate, which emphasized restoring American economic and military greatness. President Trump is far from the only politician in the US or around the world to appeal to national pride through images of military strength and economic prosperity. But one question we think Christians in the US should wrestle with in response to this is: If pride is a sin and all glory should go to God, what should we think of aspirations to political greatness? Can this kind of greatness even be truly unifying?

In some respects, President Trump’s address was perfectly in line with many traditions of American political conversation. For example, presidential speeches regularly offer lofty rhetoric. So, the president’s claims that, “a new surge of optimism is placing impossible dreams firmly within our grasp” isn’t all that remarkable, nor is his declaration that, “America will be empowered by our aspirations, not burdened by your fears; inspired by the future, not bound by the failures of the past; and guided by your vision, not blinded by our doubts.” Equally expected are the notes of military strength and economic dynamism, which the speech points to as essential parts of American greatness. They were a staple of Alexander Hamilton’s arguments for a strong navy and vibrant commerce, and they haven’t left our public rhetoric since.

But what has been unique about President Trump’s speech when compared to similar major addresses by other presidents of the 20th and 21st centuries is that he tends to not discuss America’s role in the wider world, and the fact that his calls for a resurgence in national pride seem to be divorced from any discussion of national service. Yes, he boldly stated in his address that, “America is once again ready to lead,” but he also couched that statement by saying that it would be a, “leadership based on [our] vital security interests.”

Thus, although President Trump stands in a long line of men who have invoked the concept of national greatness as a part of our civic religion, he does so in a provocatively different way, a way that seems to dampen the echoes of Christian care for one’s neighbors that can often be heard in earlier American discussions of the moral dimensions of international statecraft. Looking at President Trump’s vision of American greatness alongside statements from his most recent predecessor (Barack Obama) and his least recent predecessor (George Washington), can help illustrate this shift.

Washington’s most important political statement, his Farewell Address, is primarily remembered for his insistence that we avoid “permanent national friendships and enmities.” However, in remembering that, we often forget the nuance of this position in relation to his broader political philosophy. Before moving on to his specific policy recommendations, Washington urged his fellow citizens to remember the religious grounding of the republic:

“Of all the dispositions and habits which lead to political prosperity, religion and morality are indispensable supports. … It is substantially true that virtue or morality is a necessary spring of popular government. The rule, indeed, extends with more or less force to every species of free government.” 

Washington understood America’s greatness—its political prosperity—to be possible because of the widespread religiosity of its people. He thought that their adherence to a set of religious virtues and beliefs would keep them from turning liberty into license. These religious sensibilities could also offer the benefit of simultaneously tempering national pride while providing a basis for a sort of charitable neighborliness between states and nations. This would prevent Americans from either arrogantly attempting to assert themselves into the business of other nations on one hand, or sliding from a stance of political independence into self-serving isolationism on the other.

Former President Obama’s first inaugural address emphasized similar ideas:

We remain a young nation, but in the words of Scripture, the time has come to set aside childish things. The time has come to reaffirm our enduring spirit; to choose our better history; to carry forward that precious gift, that noble idea, passed on from generation to generation: the God-given promise that all are equal, all are free, and all deserve a chance to pursue their full measure of happiness.

In reaffirming the greatness of our nation, we understand that greatness is never a given. It must be earned. Our journey has never been one of short-cuts or settling for less. It has not been the path for the faint-hearted—for those who prefer leisure over work, or seek only the pleasures of riches and fame. Rather, it has been the risk-takers, the doers, the makers of things – some celebrated but more often men and women obscure in their labor, who have carried us up the long, rugged path towards prosperity and freedom.

In Obama’s speech, American greatness is in how it fulfills its principles, and these principles are as much about the uplifting of all mankind as they are about the realization of particular agendas.

Both Washington’s speech and Obama’s speech were parts of a tradition of presidential rhetoric that framed American greatness not as pride in nation over all else, but rather as a humble willingness to bring others into the fold of our freedom, justice and prosperity. In this way, we sometimes work out a stance toward the world that emphasizes the light we bring by example rather than one that focuses too much on our status and role against other nations.

In his Autobiography, Benjamin Franklin famously reported his practical experiment in character improvement as a young man, along with a list of virtues he felt essential to the well-formed life. Among them, he listed temperance, industry, justice, and (perhaps surprisingly, for anyone who knows about Franklin’s personality), as the last on the list, humility. To achieve the last, Franklin wrote, he would “imitate Jesus and Socrates.”

Setting aside the irony of seeking humility by attempting to model himself on such exceptional men, Franklin’s advice is surreptitiously apt for our own age. Both Jesus and Socrates were viewed by history as indisputably Great Men who were not only aware of their own greatness, but who advertised it to those around them. It surely did not appear to the Pharisees that Jesus was being humble when he said, “I and the Father are one,” and “N man comes to the Father but through me.” Nor could the jury at Socrates’ trial in Athens have been impressed by his humility when he suggested that his sentence for ‘corrupting’ the youth of that city be a generous pension.

Yet these were not the statements of braggarts: They were simply statements of fact. Jesus and the Father are one. He gave up the perfection of Heaven to come to earth to live in the squalor of our broken, sinful world, all so that we might be one with the Father, too. In justice, Socrates did deserve some reward for his work orienting the minds of the young men of Athens to the true, the good, and the beautiful—but he remained a pauper, dependent on the kindness of others to feed and clothe his own children. The two men Franklin pointed to as examples of humility and virtue were each broken and poured out even to the point of death for the good of their societies—but this is only humility because we know their greatness of soul. True humility does not consist of being meek and downtrodden when you cannot be anything else; it consists of giving up the glory which is due you in order to serve and to love and to teach.

Can America be great in this sense? Can any nation live up to that? Maybe—but it likely means not being satisfied with visions of economic nationalism and political independence. Instead, perhaps, we ought to seek ways to nudge our public identity as a nation towards the greatness of soul embodied by Jesus and Socrates, and to live and work with humility in our interactions with the world, adopting policies that lift up the weakest among us rather than exult our own already-heady status in the world.

All Americans ought to consider these claims seriously as citizens and encourage their representatives to embrace a humble approach to politics at home and abroad that nonetheless works toward justice where it can be achieved. We should actively seek to curb the excesses of pride that a deep belief in one’s nation can bring out in our character as a people by attempting to moderate the rhetoric of greatness in our own conversations and, indeed, in our expectations from governmental figures at all levels. More specifically, as Christians, it is important to recognize that humility and charity in politics may not look exactly the same as humility and charity in our everyday life, but that we can apply the same virtues in both realms.

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  • Brian A. Smith is a Contributing Editor at the Center for Christian Civics, the Managing Editor of Law & Liberty and the author of Walker Percy and the Politics of the Wayfarer. He taught political philosophy and international relations at Montclair State University in New Jersey from 2009-2018.

  • Sarah Morgan Smith is a contributing editor at the Christian Civics Blog and a Fellow at the Ashbrook Center at Ashland University, where she serves co-director of the Center’s Religion in American History project.

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