I have lived beyond my three score and ten years on Earth and yet I found myself desiring to refresh my education with an online course offered free from Hillsdale College: “The Great American Story: Land of Hope.” I have, of course, read numerous books over the years chronicling the American story and foundations, but it was probably in the 1960’s that I last took a class in American History. With all the talk today of the Constitution, Bill of Rights, Founding Fathers, and freedom itself, this online course caught my eye. I wondered if I was up to it.
And I have to say, I am thoroughly enjoying it.
I also was drawn to this course because it is taught by Wilfred McClay, using his text. I had read the text and mentioned it in these pages (Land of Hope: An Invitation to the Great American Story; Encounter Books, 2019). Highly readable, the text reads like a story, the story of our nation, told honestly, the good and the bad, and why, when, who, and where. There was no apology or grievance, but a thoughtful discussion of what happened to create this great American experiment in democracy.
The book didn’t urge me to riot, or vandalize, or topple statues. It didn’t portray victims but heroes of every skin color. It made me hopeful. It made me proud.
And it sounded a few alarms for today: can we hold onto our great American story? Is the American experiment in democracy nearing its end?
In addition, I had a personal association with the soft-spoken Dr. McClay who has taught in the past at our Berkeley seminary, St. Joseph of Arimathea Theological College. His son at the time was a Cal student in Classics and a member of our chapel parish. When it came last spring 2020 to consider endorsements for the jacket of my novel, Angel Mountain (Wipf and Stock, 2020), which considered the importance of history, our violent cancel culture, and threats to free speech, he was kind enough to endorse it:
“In Angel Mountain, Christine Sunderland has created a gripping and theologically rich novel, in which four remarkable people make their way through a shifting cultural landscape ringed with apocalyptic fire, revolutionary politics, and end-times expectancy.”
So when I saw that Dr. McClay was giving the twenty-five, twenty-minute lectures, I signed up. The course is part of a massive online effort by Hillsdale to educate the American people (yes, that’s you and I). The most recent course is on Dante. I look forward to the twenty minutes, the simple quiz, the supplementary materials provided, and the entertaining and colorful images adding drama and interest to the presentation. One doesn’t have to purchase the book (or anything else). You merely sign up and learn at your own pace.
And they say that it’s good to keep your brain active as you move into the last decades of life. So I am trying!
I’m one-third through the lectures, in the 1830’s, and what has struck me is the drama and passion of our heritage, the vigorous debates, the efforts to form this more perfect union of disparate colonies founded for varied reasons. The effort and courage required to break off from Britain was immense: to fight this war of revolution and to forge a document to protect the fragile future, one that would prevent tyranny and ensure the voice of the people. (Just like today.) Both George Washington and Alexander de Tocqueville (Democracy in America) called it an experiment, for such a republic had never been formed before. The Founders looked to the Classical world for models, looking to the past in order to move into the future.
I thought how our current American troubles were placed in perspective. For today we need these same kind of leaders, leaders who lead, with passion and sacrifice, as did Washington, Jefferson, and many others. We have the same issues at stake – our freedoms threatened by tyranny once again, the experiment in democracy seemingly breathing its last. The control of our major institutions – government, economy, and media – by a single party should raise concern among all of us. Balance of power, a key element of the American experiment and forged into the Constitution, is clearly under siege.
I particularly appreciated the chapter on Andrew Jackson, a hero in the War of 1812, elected in spite of his rougher qualities. His victory against the British at New Orleans helped him gain the Presidency in 1824. He championed the average citizen, regardless of education and class, saying they have practical wisdom and should be allowed to vote, hence the term “Jacksonian democracy.” Many compared Donald Trump to Jackson, and I can see why. One could also compare Dwight Eisenhower to Jackson, since the general was elected after his leadership in World War II. And did you know that “The Star Spangled Banner” was written in the War of 1812, as Francis Scott Keys glimpsed from his ship the flag of victory raised over Fort McHenry, Maryland, after the fort was bombarded by the British? (seen in the painting above)
Our country is comparatively young, and yet we can see this river of reason and rights running from the first colonies into our present troubled sea. We reason that we have our rights listed clearly in our founding documents. We seek the truth. We seek freedom to speak, to assemble, to worship. We seek to be counted when we cast our votes, rooting out all fraud.
There is no other country in the world like America. She is the last great hope of civilized and civil civilization.
And so today is Whitsunday or Pentecost, the great celebration of the descent of the Holy Spirit upon the disciples in Jerusalem. The disciples were troubled too, their Lord having ascended to Heaven. But on this day the fire of the Holy Spirit, like a rushing wind, came upon them, giving them the ability to speak in many languages, to witness to the many ethnicities in Jerusalem at that time, to tell of the marvelous works of God in Christ, the salvation of mankind.
This Holy Spirit has never left us. This third person of God continues to breathe upon us, through sacraments, prayer, and scripture. He leads us where we must go, gives us the words we must say, lifts us up when we fall. He listens to our complaints, to our fears, in our darkest moments. He is the comforter, the strengthener. He guided the Founding Fathers in the creation of this more perfect union, establishing a new country, unique in the history of Man. He guides us today, as we seek to hold on to the good in our history and learn from the bad, celebrate the successes and mourn the mistakes.
Come, Holy Spirit, breathe upon America, re-awaken her spirit of freedom, her spirit of hope. Rekindle the spark that makes her a shining light upon the hill, a beacon to the world.