Of course America will survive the coronavirus. We’ve many times survived far worse. Typically we emerge from our turmoils and crises stronger and more robust than before. Despite our national history and character, pessimism is typically safer, easier, and more fashionable. It’s also more cynical.
But America is intrinsically a hopeful country because it is providential in its self-identity. From the start Americans understand their national mission as purposeful, important, universal, and almost cosmic. Abraham Lincoln called Americans the “almost chosen people.” The caveat of “almost” is important. We aren’t the ancient Hebrews bearing redemption for the whole world.
Yet the ancient Hebrews were models for the Puritan settlers, the Founding Fathers, and the Civil War generation who saw their conflict as a divinely ordained fiery trial. Seeing America as a nation in covenant continued through the rhetoric of Martin Luther King Jr. and the Civil Rights Movement. America’s self-understanding as the guardian of democracy propelled it to victory in the Cold War. Whether we admit it or not, we still think of ourselves as “almost chosen.”
Being “almost chosen” is not easy. The actual Chosen People suffered plenty. They were not always faithful. They forgot who they were. They got impatient, self-indulgent, and lazy. They suffered consequences that befell them as the standards levied on them were uniquely high. They sinned; then they repented. They prevailed, because they were part of God’s plan.
God has a plan for America as He has a plan for all peoples and individuals. That plan for our nation has typically and blessedly included a great deal of hope and confidence about the future and our role in it. Other more angst-ridden societies often have admired, however grudgingly, this confidence. Some have feared it. Others, in their malevolence, realized its repercussions only too late.
This cultural confidence is ultimately providential, and even the secular and skeptical are unknowingly motivated by it, in their striving and exacting critiques. There’s a semi-prominent religious activist whose theme is that America is beholden to “slave-holder” religion. In his view, America’s susceptibility to coronavirus refutes American Exceptionalism. But this critic is himself an arch American Exceptionalist, fiercely insisting that America is more sinful than any other, and demanding that America repent as no other. He sounds like an old New England Puritan preacher, without the self-awareness.
Such activists are annoying in their sanctimony, but they are central to America’s story as “almost chosen.” America has always been full of such sanctimonious nagging. These nags have extraordinary expectations of America. They challenge us to repent in pursuit of ever more exalted standards. But pursuit of such exaltation requires confidence and hope, which these sour critics too often forget or dismiss. Cynicism and myopia are never remedies.
Christian Realism rejects cynicism, recognizing instead that sin is pervasive while divine redemption is even more pervasive. This historical perspective of the church universal offers constant hope in our fallen world. Pessimists and fatalists wallow in the fallenness while ignoring Calvary and divine grace. Some chirpy optimists, who are far fewer in number, pretend there is only kindness and misunderstanding in the world. Thinking providentially requires more exhaustive nuance. Yes, the world is in a bad place, but its Lord is redeeming it. We are called to discern the always ongoing acts of His redemption. Sometimes it’s hard, not because those divine acts aren’t obvious, but because our rebellious natures too often resist recognizing His power and authority.
So how is God revealing Himself during the suffering and fear of the coronavirus? There are of course the countless acts of sacrifice, service, duty, and mercy by healthcare workers who tend to the ill at risk to themselves. There are many others in science and pharmaceuticals who are laboring valiantly for treatments and vaccines. There are unrecognized countless laborers in service industries working long hours to ensure we all have food and basic needs. Many in government toil on behalf of public order and public health. Clergy and many church employees, with volunteers, continue to steward their congregations with spiritual and material resources necessary for life and hope.
Ironically, churches, whose sanctuaries are largely closed to public worship, are now more important than in usual times. They are called to offer the hope of the Gospel, of course, which is their supreme mission. But they also have a divinely ordained duty to advocate for the public good in society. This social obligation is why public worship is largely closed, both to protect the health of worshippers and of the wider public. But more widely, churches should inspire hope and confidence in the nation as our community, reminding us to be faithful to our highest callings and best attributes.
Churches were and are central to American character and culture. G.K. Chesterton famously said America has the soul of a church. This spiritual soul is key to American optimism, pluck, and resolution. At their best, Americans don’t despair. They don’t look back. They don’t doubt that God has a purpose for America. Civil War-era Methodist Bishop Matthew Simpson, in a fit of arch patriotism, supposedly said God “can’t do without America.” Hopefully he only mangled his syntax and not intentionally his theology. God doesn’t need America but He loves and has good plans for America, if we will listen.
After the terrible losses of coronavirus, we should hope for and expect providentially good news ahead for America. We might anticipate improved healthcare and enhanced medical technologies. We might expect that social isolation will lead to better appreciation of community, especially the spiritual camaraderie of the church, but also including neighborhood and civil society. We might hope for more focus on family as the central social network. We might experience a much-needed baby boom after decades of declining birth rates. There could be a wider spiritual awakening that reminds Americans of our highest religious aspirations toward God and each other.
Of course, even in the best scenario, post-coronavirus America will still be sinful. Even the best religious awakenings only persist for a season. Yet, even if brief, they produce fruit that is eternal. Let’s be confident that America after the present crisis will be renewed, more familial, more innovative, more creative, more dutiful, more compassionate, braver, and more daring. And may our moral and spiritual improvements, however uneven, exemplify our faith in a kind Providence, inspiring a needful humanity likewise to heed this hope.