The Problem with "America First"

The American flag outside Goshen hospital, Indiana. Goshen has a history of being a sundown town.

The American flag outside Goshen hospital, Indiana. Goshen has a history of being a sundown town.

This past week I returned from a trip to the United States where I attended a conference at our bi-national seminary, Anabaptist Mennonite Biblical Seminary. The theme was diversity in the church and the call to all of us, as Christians, was to become diversity-oriented leaders. It was an amazing time of meeting new friends and learning from very wise people. I also had the chance to visit my family and friends in Toronto which was refreshing and relaxing. But after being away for two weeks, I was ready to come home.

I don’t usually think of the US as being so different from Canada, and I sure didn’t expect a cross-cultural experience just from driving seven hours south of Toronto, but in many ways, that is what I had. I was a stranger to them, and the context of the area was strange to me. Some of the language and customs were new. The cultural make-up was unique, beautiful, yet tragic. I learned about the stories of Goshen (a neighbouring town) and the long history of racial segregation and how systemic racism still has its visible effects in those communities (as it does in Canada as well). I didn’t realize that some parents need to teach their kids what to do when (not if) they get pulled over by the police because of the colour of their skin. It seemed strange to me that senior citizens in their 70’s and 80’s would carry guns. Above all that, however, was the constant conversation about the US political season.

If there was one word I would use to describe the American situation now, it would be turmoil. That’s not to say that there has never been turmoil or that there are no other forces present in America, but as I sat with people and listened to their fears for the coming years, it became clear that America is heading down a difficult road.

Their situation seems so complex and divided that I’m not sure where to begin. Not only is the country split, but the church seems to be as well (not unique to the US though). Christians are denouncing each other and there seems to be little space for truly listening to one another. There is constant global engagement as other leaders and countries tell the US what they think about them. There is pressure from the global church for Christians in America to question Trump’s call to put “America First.”

It’s those two words that have stuck with me and continue to put my stomach into knots. On January 20, 2017, at his presidential inauguration, Trump made a new “decree” that from that moment on it would be “only America first, America first.” As patriotic as this statement is, it is not a Christian attitude for any governing leader to hold. This is why many Christians would refuse to hold that kind of an office, because it naturally forces you to move your allegiance away from “Jesus first” (but that is a blog post for another time).

I find it interesting that Trump introduced this as a “new vision,” as if putting their country first is not the goal of every government in every country. To put that vision into practice, however, is not as easy as saying those words because the idea of America is different for its 325 million citizens. When Trump says he is putting America first in its policies, law-making, and international relations, he is not saying he is putting Americans first, but his idea of America.

Our brothers and sisters to the south have spent the last few months wrestling with the questions that come from such a vision. Questions like:

  • What is America?
  • Who belongs in our America?
  • What is it that makes me an American?
  • What does it mean to put America first?
  • At what cost are we going to put ourselves first?
  • What is our responsibility to the rest of the world if we are first?

It has become clear to me that Americans are answering these questions in very different ways. They are not united on any of these questions. Many don’t agree with how Trump or his administration have already answered these questions for them. And unfortunately, many Americans are not asking each other why they have answered these questions a certain way; they simply assume they are right and the other is wrong. The problem with “America first” is that the US does not know who it is. I think this had led America into an unexpected identity crisis.

To move forward with such a strong vision (whether you think it’s right or wrong) requires you to know who you are. If you want to make "America Great Again," you should know what that America is. Perhaps all the dissension, fighting and protests are the birth pangs of a country finding (or reforging) their identity. If listening and learning from one another was their priority, it could lead to a greater vision for America. It could lead to the breaking of walls and the healing of wounds. But an “America first” kind of vision, blindly followed, can also lead to a country repeating their history, a history that is marred with oppression, injustice, greed, and intolerance.  

Time will tell who America decides to be.

As an outsider, my heart breaks for my new friends and the situations they have to deal with, but I am also thankful that they are present there to be a light in this dark time. God has a way of using these kinds of difficult situations to reveal Himself and to bring people into His love (We in Canada have our own struggles to deal with as well). My prayer for America is that as they figure out who they are, they may also discover who God is and the life of love He calls us all to lead for Him, ourselves, and each other.