In that article I posited the following scenario:
1st Republic 1787-1865
2nd Republic 1865-1898
3rd Republic 1898-1945
4th Republic 1945-1989
5th Republic 1989-
There are other possibilities and ways to delineate the 'shifts'. It depends on the criteria you decide to utilise. I think the conversation is most helpful when contextualised by the Constitution, its separation of powers and the Bill of Rights. That's how I would argue the schema.
However I will freely admit it could be structured differently. Someone might argue the following:
1st Republic 1787-1865
2nd Republic 1865-1917 (US entry into WWI)
3rd Republic 1917-45
4th Republic 1945-
And they would have a point. Others would say as I suggested the US started down the imperial path with the Mexican-American War, Matthew Perry's expedition to Japan and the stealing of Hawaii. While I see those events as hinting toward the larger imperial project I think it was the Spanish-American War and US involvement in China that all but sealed the arrangement.
On the other hand it could be argued the 1st Republic failed with the Articles of Confederation etc... The dream of 1776 was already dead or at the very least deeply wounded by 1787.
Another angle to consider is the fact that before the US embraced a trans-continental empire it had already embarked on an imperial project from 1787. Having consolidated everything east of the Mississippi, the US sought by 1803 (with some controversy) to significantly expand its territory. The US annexation and slow conquest of Florida would be another example.
We can argue these points all day and it must be said most points have some validity and standing. There's the overarching narrative but then there's the significant shifts that take place when it comes to law, the power of government and civil liberties.
The points I focus on are the original Bill of Rights and specifically the Post-Civil War amendments, what they meant and how they affected the Constitution overall. The war was 'the' initial turning point and the issues that led to it have never been resolved.
Of course today we have many preaching civil disobedience because of the 'unconstitutionality' of these amendments and the fact that their ratification was a bit hokey.
Maybe so, but it's a 150 years too late. If we start down the path of de-legitimizing historical events then the only 'moral' thing for us to do is swear allegiance to Queen Elizabeth II. As Christians the Revolution was certainly immoral and illegitimate. And yet it happened. The powers that be are ordained by God. It by no means suggests the powers that be are right, moral or possess a heavenly mandate. Like Assyria, Babylon and Rome of old the wicked powers of the world including the USA serve their purpose.
Those that preach sedition and violence fall directly under the condemnation of Romans 13, ironically often while appealing to the same passage! Recently an acquaintance passed me an mp3 to JD Hall's Pulpit and Pen programme. Apart from a poor attempt at being a Calvinist version of Glenn Beck, he was preaching and promoting sin and false historical narratives. We can revisit the dastardly deeds of past political machinations but his purpose was to plant the seeds of subversion and declare today's government illegitimate.
The Apostle Paul would rebuke him and does so in Romans 13.
I'm interested in the Constitutional questions that arose as the nation grew more diverse and the tensions and dilemmas born of industrialisation and urbanisation. Questions about religion came to the fore. Roman Catholics didn't like public schools for many of the same reasons we don't today. Protestants (at the time) believed in and wanted public schooling. The states under the tenth amendment had the prerogative but the post-Civil War amendments gave the federal government a stake in making sure they were universally accessible and structured under the auspices of equal protection.
In many ways the 14th amendment repealed the 10th. Subsequent legal questions might have been made a lot easier if they would have gone ahead and formalised the repeal. Sadly for us today it was conservative Protestants that established the legal precedents and codes that we're now forced to deal with as we try to raise our children outside the public system.
As cities grew all kinds of questions about eminent domain, building codes and workplace safety came into play. These pressed some of the principles in the Constitution. Do you own your property or not? Do others have claim to your property and how it is used? Do you have obligations to others who live around you?
The various so-called Christian teachers (heretics really) running around claiming that taxation is theft are hacks and charlatans. But it's a sad commentary on the state of Christianity that so many buy into their lies and errors. Not only are they ignorant of Scripture, they are also ill-informed when it comes to basic questions about what a society is and what it requires to function.
In 1898 as the US turned to war (and very few today remember just how vicious the subsequent fight for the Philippines really was) voices of dissent arose and many in power didn't like it. These were the years of debate. The US was undergoing a significant shift and expansion in terms of power. The legal ramifications would follow.
The Anti-Imperial side ultimately lost the public debate. Lincoln had all but destroyed the Constitution during the Civil War and many celebrate him for doing so. And yet the war's end and his death allowed the nation to revert back to the norm.
But with the Spanish-American War and then World War I, things began to change. The debate was over as far as many were concerned, and yet the new imperialism would have to be masked by noble sounding mottoes and moral justifications. But it grew more complicated and the stakes were higher. The Espionage Act of 1917 represented the culmination of the rumblings that had commenced in 1898. Free speech was no longer quite so free.
Technology like radio and later television also greatly affected the nature of these questions.
Shouting 'fire' in a crowded theatre wasn't protected speech, but what about 'War of the Worlds'? What about radio and television programmes that were broadcast on public airwaves to millions? How far could it go?
The fifties and sixties are fascinating. We have straining impulses in the society, witch-hunts and thought-crime to laws that forced businesses to serve people they didn't want to serve. When put that way it seems problematic but on the other hand for a business owner to deny a hotel room or meal to someone because of the colour of their skin also seems problematic in a democratic society. Sometimes one person's rights trample another's. These problems are no so easily resolved. The 'original' Constitution makes its position very clear. While not explicitly racist, it certainly assumes a de facto racist posture.
All of this is to say as I suggested that there's another narrative argument that can be made. If you embrace the hated concept of a Living Constitution then indeed you can find continuity and development and in that sense one may claim (for good or ill) that the United States is the same country that it was in 1787. I mean that in the sense that it was a nation in infancy and was destined to grow. Liberals celebrate the nation's past but also look for the good old days to be in the future. They want to think about what the nation can become. They see it as an ongoing project.
Ironically in order to fulfill this vision they also are willing to suppress freedoms, crush free speech, invade privacy and compel behaviour. The problem is trying to create a unified (and thus in some form Sacral) society, hard in any context but almost unfathomable in a nation as large and diverse as the United States.
The Tower of Babel always self destructs and so will this one.
And yet there's a dilemma. If the Liberals are correct then indeed much of the past must not only be written off but ultimately condemned. That type of cultural revolution is pretty destructive and the effect is akin to sawing off the branch that you're sitting on.
And yet the conservative tendency to whitewash and romanticise is equally offensive to those who wish to embrace historical factuality and truth.
The United States is not the worst country in the world nor is it by any stretch of the imagination the best. If I wish to be charitable I can argue that the United States is relatively kind at home and yet rather vicious abroad. Obviously I speak as one who is white. Those of other race and creed will have a very different take on the domestic situation. While not as wicked as some of the most notorious regimes in history a thorough examination shows that it has earned its place among some those that are considered unusually sinister and wicked. The US is responsible for a lot of theft, death and misery around the world belying its professed moral leadership and concern for human freedom.
That too creates a moral dilemma for its citizens especially those of us who follow Christ. How do we live in it and yet not profit from its criminal deeds and murders that it commits both abroad and at home?
I don't support the 1776 Rebellion or much of what came after. The Constitution neither represents Christian values nor does it seek to glorify God. Even the 'cherished' values of the Declaration are largely rubbish. I don't believe the Bible supports 'inalienable rights' or a 'right' to life, liberty, the pursuit of happiness or property for that matter.
Regardless of the lens you employ, from a Christian perspective the United States is a Babel that has in the past century exceeded all others. War is wicked and breeds dark deeds and imaginations, covetousness and vengeance. The US story is one of war and conquest. That does something to a nation's soul and all the more when it is so shrouded in myths and lies.
I'm interested in the narratives, how they play out and how they obscure the developments that are unfolding. I'm interested in how the Church interacts and participates in this realm of ideas and actions. I'm interested in how these narratives have been used to justify ethics that contradict Scripture.
We can argue about which schema to use and these discussions have their value. But we also need to look at the true history of the nation and honestly assess its deeds. That with historical precedent will give us some notion of where it's going.
And I'm afraid on that point I think the case for optimism is a weak one. I mean this both in terms of the society but especially in terms of the Church.
These questions have a limited value. We are told to give an answer for the hope that is within us. We're not told to provide a thorough social critique and dismantle the social narrative. Yet, I think because of the way in which the Church has woven all these questions together, in a sense if we want to explain where the Church is, it's helpful to destroy the idol they've erected in their hearts. Like all idols it's a lie.