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Election Central

What does it mean to make America great again?

Presidential contender Donald Trump, speaks to the media after arriving by helicopter during the 1st first day of the Women's British Open golf championship on the Turnberry golf course in Turnberry, Scotland, July 30, 2015 (Credit: AP Photo/Scott Heppell)Ralph Waldo Emerson believed that to be great was to be misunderstood. Shakespeare found that some were born great, a number achieved greatness, while others had greatness thrust upon them. All the while, business writer Jim Collins observed that good is the enemy of great. But what exactly is this misunderstood, ambiguously defined, variously achieved, superlative that goes by great?

Recently, the ambiguous nature of greatness has only been exceeded by its ambiguity. Donald Trump wants to make America great again. But how? A recent trending topic on Twitter drew comments from many under the hashtag #whenAmericawasgreat. Individuals were trolling down memory lane, sharing their belief as to when America was great. But that still leaves us with a few questions: when did America lose her greatness? What is greatness? In a world in which truth changes dependent upon the person, is it even possible to come to an answer?

Some noted that America was great when prayer was in school and the Ten Commandments were public decor. Teachers would lead the class in the pledge of allegiance and soon thereafter, a petition was made to God to bless this nation. But when prayer left school, it took greatness from America with it.

But was America truly great then? After all, while prayer may have been in schools, black people were not. Plagued by segregation and blinded by prejudices, we were a country divided, nestled in our homogenous cocoons.

Many harkened back to America's early days, when times were simpler and families stayed together. Not distracted by technology or its salacious effects, people were able to be fully present in the moment and in control of what others knew about them. Familiarity bred contempt was the golden standard in this era, so transparency and authenticity were not nearly as ubiquitous and sought after as they are today.

But was America truly great then? People may have been fully present in the moment, but women could not be present in the voting box. Relegated to prescribed spots that were deemed suitable, women's contributions were seismic in private, but limited in public.

For many, greatness is an antique of a bygone era. Highly valued and sought after, individuals gaze back with their romanticizing goggles that filter the bad for the sake of the good. But is it possible that America's greatness is less a time than an ideal? Could it be that the exceptional nature of America is not the system but the people that make up the system?

In 1831, French scholar Alexis de Tocqueville published his seminal work Democracy in America. This work was the result of a diligent study of the American landscape and culture. Coming from France, de Tocqueville was greatly interested in the ways of this great experiment known as the United States functioned.  Searching for the source of its greatness, he noted: "The greatness of America lies not in being more enlightened than any other nation, but rather in her ability to repair her faults."

For Alexis de Tocqueville, greatness did not equate to flawlessness but to the pursuit of perfection – a more perfect union one might say. Implicit within this pursuit is the realization that we have yet to arrive. There is a trail of tears that stretches back to the genesis of America that testify that we have never been perfect. We devalued individuals, sequestered tribes, and silenced groups. But the supreme ideal of liberty and justice for all allowed us to rectify our wrongs, celebrate when we were right, and be open to conversation in between.

As Christians in the American context, we are becoming increasingly aware of the faults of our country. Religious liberty is threatened, pornography is pervasive, and abortion is rationalized, to name but a few. But we cannot allow the specks in the eyes of Uncle Sam to hinder us from doing surgery to remove the logs in our own. Just as we desire America to repair her faults, we must repair our own.

We are a people that have been called to a higher standard – holiness. We have counted the cost and denied ourselves in order that we might pour out our lives as living sacrifices. Walking humbly with our God, we do justice and love mercy. This is more than a gesture of voting but maintaining a posture of serving –regardless of the outcome of the election.

Win or lose, we still serve. This may be misunderstood by some, but considering how Emerson defined greatness, this is what makes our country great.

De Tocqueville: "I sought for the greatness and genius of America in her public system and her institutions of learning, and it was not there. Not until I went into the churches of America and heard pulpits aflame with righteousness did I understand her genius and power. America is great because America is good, and if America ever ceases to be good, America will cease to be great."

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