There are usually two responses that come to this question from Americans (most non-Americans would probably add a strong negative as a third possibility): "Of course it is," and, the answer I would like to defend, "What a ridiculously unanswerable question!" To those who, like me, lean toward the latter of these responses, it might seem bizarre to devote a blog-column to the topic. But, strangely enough, there are a lot of Americans--perhaps the majority--who would actually, quite blithely, give the first answer.
I've run into this thought a few times in the past couple weeks. One was in the course of an ordinary conversation with a friend, who asserted, quite out of the blue, that the US was the best country in the world, as if that were an undisputed fact. My second encounter was the more interesting one--a Gospel music singer was performing at our church, and stated how proud he was to live in "the best country on earth," and then proceeded to have us all stand and sing "I'm Proud to Be an American." This is perhaps not all that surprising, considering the all-too-common syncretism between Christianity and American patriotism these days. But the interesting thing is that we, as a church in a border-town, actually attract a fair number of Canadians to our concerts. I would estimate that at least half of the audience that night was Canadian, and I suspect they might not have all agreed quite so quickly that the US was the best country on earth.
Now before we begin looking a little more deeply into this question, I should pause and reaffirm my own patriotism. Having been influenced by Anabaptist theology and practice, I am, perhaps, a bit more cautious than most American Christians about brash displays of patriotic fervor, especially in connection with the church, but that doesn't mean that I don't love my country. I do. The USA is extraordinary--in its history, its system of government, its natural wonders, and its people. I am proud to be an American, proud to be a citizen of what might very well be the noblest political experiment ever carried out on a national level. But that doesn't mean that I can't be honest about my country, that I can't mourn its failings, that I can't, indeed, even be ashamed of it sometimes. Loving my country doesn't mean that I need to somehow convince myself that it is superior to all other nations.
While I am proud of the US for many reasons, there have been seasons of shame in my relationship with my country. I was working in northern Sudan when the news about the Abu Ghraib prison scandal broke. And in the face of confusion and anger from the Arabs around me, I was ashamed of what my countrymen had done. Now, clearly, that was an isolated incident that did not reflect the true character of the majority of our armed forces. But there are other things I'm ashamed of as an American. I'm ashamed of our legacy of slavery and racial discrimination. I'm ashamed of what we did to the Native Americans. I'm sometimes ashamed of the often unreflective and anti-intellectual character of the American public. I'm ashamed of the reckless plunge my generation is taking into blind hedonism. And I'm also ashamed to see too much arrogance in our patriotism. It is one thing to love our country--deeply, passionately, as we should; to applaud her merits and seek to pass on her distinctive virtues. But it is quite another thing to claim in the face of the world that we are the best.
Well, what do people mean when they call this the best country in the world? Some, perhaps, merely throw out the phrase unreflectively, as an expression of their loyalty and personal preference for the US. In most cases, it is merely a statement of personal opinion. But sometimes one gets the sense that the people who say this mean it in a metaphysical sense--that truly, in the grand scheme of things, no other country can measure up to the USA.
It's worth asking what that assertion even means. What qualifications go into determining the best country on earth? There are thousands upon thousands of variables you could take into consideration. Most of the studies which try to answer that question in an unbiased way, usually going off of standard-of-living statistics and polls on personal happiness, end up pointing towards one of the Scandinavian countries as the best (Finland was #1 in the most recent survey I've seen; the US #11). Honestly, though, I suspect that most of the people who make the assertion that the US is the best have never been in more than one or two other countries for any extended period of time. None of them, certainly, have lived for awhile in every single country, which is presumably what you would need to do to make such an assertion fairly. And even so, the list of possible qualifications is endless. Is the US a wealthy nation? Others are wealthier. Is the US a happy and contented nation? Other nations are happier and more contented. Do Americans show moral courage? So do citizens of other countries. Is America founded on noble principles? Yes, but there are other countries out there with constitutions just as lofty as our own.
There are, of course, some areas where Americans have dominated the playing field. We often top the charts in military strength, economics, and charitable giving (though the last of these is possibly offset, in a moral sense, by the overall materialism of our culture--people of other countries don't always give as much money as we do, but they may well be more generous and hospitable than we are; this is particularly true of the citizens of Middle Eastern countries, for whom hospitality is one of the highest rules of life). But we also come close to topping the charts in some rather less-than-noble categories: abortions, teenage pregnancies, suicides, and pornography production are a few examples. All this to say, it would be very challenging to come up with a set of distinctive American qualities that would wipe out all the competition for the "best country on earth" title.
I think, though, that another factor comes into play for people who assert that this is the best country in the world. They often seem to tie the claim to a religious/historical argument--something along the lines of God providentially choosing and shaping our nation. It's often stated by these same folks that America was founded on Christian principles; and the feeling is that the US has always stood up for what is good and right and true and just. (It should be noted at this point that many other countries would certainly dissent and could easily enumerate some of the more ignoble moments in American history.) While there is some truth to these ideas (the Founding Fathers were, certainly, deeply influenced by Christian ideals and moral values, and we have, overall, been a much more religious country than others in the industrial West), it's a hard case to make conclusively. While God is certainly not impassive towards the USA and its legacy, I don't think our somewhat-checkered history bears out the claim that we are a chosen nation, specially blessed, or a "city on a hill." It seems to me from Scripture that God loves all nations (yes, even the "bad" ones) and longs for them all to come into loving relationship with him. And one could rattle off a handful of nations that might just as easily be considered to have a special place in God's heart--Israel and Palestine (yes, both), El Salvador (hard to say no to a country that's named after you), the Vatican, and China (with probably more Christians living there than the entire population of the US), just to name a few. That's a bit tongue-in-cheek of course; but at the heart of the matter I think we would all agree that God is more concerned with the people who make up a nation than with the outward political form of the nation itself.
My main question to those who assert the primacy of the US would be, Why are we even bothering to make this claim? Who cares (except our own fervent patriots)? What does it matter if we live in the best or the second best or the hundredth-best nation? Let's do what we can to make our country even better than it is, regardless of what other countries do or where they sit on the scale of things. We have a fine, wonderful country. We have a lot to be proud of. But it is possible to love our country without putting other countries down. It is possible to love ourselves and love our neighbors, too. God bless the USA; yes, amen! But God bless Canada, too; God bless Russia; God bless China; God bless Iraq; God bless Zimbabwe. We are only the best if we love the best; if we love our neighbors as God loves them. Let's strive to that end.
Note to My Readers: from mid-June to mid-August (6/18 - 8/20), I will be taking a summer break from posting new articles for my Thursday and Friday slots. This will only affect my Thursday series on the global growth of Christianity, and my Friday series, the "Theological Bestiary" of birds, both of which will resume in late August. During the summer, I'll be dusting off some of my best essays from the first few years of this blog (a decade ago), as well as my verse play "Thus Ends the World," and re-posting them in the Thursday and Friday slots. All other weekdays will continue to feature new material throughout the summer.