It was the land of opportunity; it was the land of slavery; it was “conceived in liberty and dedicated to the prospect that all men are created equal”; it was built on greed and sustained through oppression; it is defended by heroes who shed their blood to protect it; it is the site of mass shootings and children torn apart in the womb. What do we make of America?
One way to understand the paradox of our nation comes from C.S. Lewis’ novel “That Hideous Strength,” the third book in his Space Trilogy, which depicts a different nation dealing with a very similar paradox. The book paints a picture of two societies that struggle for control of England. One, the N.I.C.E., fails utterly to live up to its acronym (to put it mildly), seeks absolute control over society, and obsesses over scientific advancement with no regard for the lives of humans. The other is a small community bound together by loyalty, seeking ways to battle evil and building a stable, (mostly) harmonious mini-society. The whole story can be understood as a contrast between these two groups.
Near the end of the story, Ransom, the leader of the good community, explains that these two groups have battled throughout their country’s history. England, Ransom says, is “haunted” by a vision of goodness, an ideal of what it can be. He calls this ideal version of England “Logres,” while the evil force that struggles against Logres he terms “Britain.” Logres and Britain have struggled throughout the nation’s history.
In Ransom’s conception of history, Logres has been led by a series of pendragons, including most famously King Arthur, who fight for the ideal against the evil of Britain, attracting a core group of supporters around them. Some labored anonymously, while others took a public stand. Though Lewis doesn’t explicitly say this, by his definition, William Wilberforce was a pendragon.
Obviously, this portrayal of English history is fantasy, but like much of Lewis’ fiction, it conceals a greater truth. Speaking through his characters, Lewis expands this account to apply to every people group; he speaks only of England because it is the country he knows best. In fact, each country has its own ideal self that struggles against its own distortions:
“Of course, there are universal rules to which all goodness must conform. But that’s only the grammar of virtue. It’s not there that the sap is. He doesn’t make two blades of grass the same: how much less two saints, two nations, two angels. The whole work of healing Tellus [Earth] depends on nursing that little spark, on incarnating that ghost, which is still alive in every real people, and different in each. When Logres really dominates Britain, when the goddess Reason, the divine clearness, is really enthroned in France, when the order of Heaven is really followed in China—why, then it will be spring.”
I would disagree with the equating of the goddess Reason in France with divine wisdom, but Lewis’ broader point is sound. Nations, like individuals, have personalities and unique characteristics, and not all cultural differences are the result of sin. Each nation has a unique type of goodness to which it should aspire, and the way to “save the world” is for each nation to be transformed into its own ideal self. When people from every tribe, tongue, and nation gather around the throne of the Lamb, the cultures that shaped them and were shaped by them may also be redeemed.
Following Lewis’s example of focusing on the nation he knew best, I now turn my attention to the United States. One unique aspect of our nation’s holy haunting is that its founders consciously built ideals into its founding documents: “All men are created equal and are endowed by their creator with certain unalienable rights.” Even before that, the Puritans who first settled New England arrived with a sense of purpose, hoping to build a truly just and holy society. There is something beautiful about traditional American values: virtue, hard work, self-sacrifice, and investment in one’s community, all of which make up “Ideal America,” our equivalent of England’s Logres.
At the same time, there are bad things about America: our past and present examples of oppression and racism, our materialism, our glorification of sex and violence. Lately, it seems easier to point out the evil in our nation than the good. Maybe that’s because evil attracts more attention than good, so it’s what the news reports and people share on the Internet. Or maybe Corrupt America is winning the battle at this point in our history.
But the presence of Corrupt America doesn’t mean we need to be ashamed of our nation. We should be ashamed of some things it does, but there is nothing wrong with loving the ideals our nation stands for. In fact, seeing and nurturing the good in our land is the best way to drive out evil.
However, we must also remember the words of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn from “The GulagArchipelago“: “The line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being.” Just as our nation is divided between Ideal America and Corrupt America, so all of us are caught in the struggle between the good beings we should be and the evil we fall into. This goes even for those heroes of Ideal America. This is why founding fathers who wrote eloquently about liberty owned slaves and why some of those who came to the New World seeking religious freedom denied that same freedom to others. Even those who fight for goodness must still struggle against their own evil.
Similarly, we should not be so caught up in the virtues of our nation that we mistake it for the Kingdom of God. Ideal America has not completely eradicated Corrupt America at any point in history, and it will not do so until Christ returns and destroys all sin. And even if America experiences revival and moral reformation and all the hopes of American Christians come to pass, America will still not be our ultimate home. Our nation, even at its best, can only be a shadow of the Kingdom of God, our final hope for true liberty and perfect justice.
And yet our nation can become a shadow of the Kingdom of God. The virtues it stands for must not be ignored out of cynicism that sees only Corrupt America and ignores the Ideal. We must recognize both the evil in our land and its goodness and strive to live out that goodness in whatever sphere we can. America is made up of individuals, families, and local communities, all of whom have the potential to be transformed by God’s grace and goodness. When these become what they were created to be, our nation will follow.
Image copyright Footage Firm.
Elizabeth Sunshine is an MTS student at the University of Notre Dame with a focus on biblical studies.