In a world dominated by hashtags and slogans, one has soared above the rest: “Make America Great Again.”
Even on the face of it, it’s a loaded phrase. It invites a variety of questions: Is America not currently great? Was it truly great in the past? What are the secrets that would make America great . . . again?
The slogan could—and probably does—imply many different things. At the root of all possible meanings, however, is the premise that making the nation greater than it’s ever been—and making any country greater than it’s ever been—lies in returning to our roots.
Millions of Americans reportedly believe their jobs have been taken by people willing to work for less, or by individuals producing products overseas that current Americans or their parents once produced in the land of the free. Many citizens celebrated—but some were suspicious of—a number of reported deals reached recently to bring billions in cash home to America to spur manufacturing growth, only to discover that automation is the buzzword of the day.
We feel the threat on many fronts. Untiring robots quietly replace 16 human jobs per robot in a packing plant; agribusiness strips the need for human pickers in the field. Artificial intelligence eliminates the roles that call for human judgment. Most vulnerable are transportation jobs, but retail and fast-food workers are being replaced by impersonal technology that never asks for a raise or ever needs health insurance.
Relatively few Millennials have any significant interaction with agriculture, manufacturing, or other “working class” issues.
So why did most American Millennials not resonate with the issues about which the other half of the country voted in our most recent election? Truth is, relatively few Millennials have any significant interaction with agriculture, manufacturing, or other “working class” issues. Many Millennials are college-educated (but not as many as some think).2 Most work in urban areas, and sip their $5.25 pumpkin spice lattes while simultaneously ruminating on their mountains of college debt, taking a selfie, and hash-tagging #firstworldproblems.
Do today’s Millennials still believe in the much-storied “American dream”? Why should they, when the golden promise of their generation—that technology will lead us to a new Promised Land—hasn’t resulted in increasing prosperity? They sit uncomfortably in Starbucks, far from the land that grew the wheat that made their frosted scones possible, wondering how the world’s wealthiest nation can be growing more food than ever while more American kids go hungry. Disparities and contradictions loom on every side—between rich and poor, “red” and “blue,” rural and urban—in what
Time magazine recently, and adroitly, termed “the Divided States of America.”
To get some background, we first need “ground”—in this case, the soil that nurtures real roots.
My understanding of Bible prophecy teaches me that America was designed by God for a role it would play in the history of nations—and not just through geopolitics. Did you know, for example, that America has more farmland with easy access to river transport than any nation of the world? Or that it’s drastically cheaper to transport both farm products and manufactured products by boat than by rail or truck? I believe Providence intended America to be an economic powerhouse, and, in turn, the breadbasket of the world. But the only way to make that design work is agriculture.
The rich farmland of present-day America was largely confiscated from its original inhabitants, and massively deforested through the back-breaking labor of generations who wrestled a living from the land. Nevertheless, what America has now become resulted from the unique confluence of geography, liberty, faith, and tilling the soil.
In the very nation where prophecy predicted that the bread of life would be sustained, the bread that nourishes hungry appetites would be the economic engine of this safe haven, a sanctuary for men and women seeking God according to the dictates of their own consciences.
Was God, through America’s founding, opening a way for religious and political refugees escaping Old World cities and tyrannies to return to the way of life He originally planned? Humans were created to live in a garden, to “work it and take care of it” (Gen. 2:15). Have we outgrown that idea of paradise?
Like me, most Millennials have been educated by a system that often inculcated the idea that manual labor—agriculture or manufacturing work—is something for the economically disadvantaged or those who are undereducated. We recoil—at least internally—from the idea that men and women with our advantages and education might ever spend our work lives picking cabbages, pruning orchards, or running dairy herds. On a recent trip to India, I heard the same sentiments being shared by the rising Millennial working class.
Aside from the implicit arrogance of these notions, a bigger issue looms: most Americans under the age of 40 have relatively little contact with the land—specifically, the farmland—that made this nation great.
More than 230 years ago the man who would become this nation’s third president, and who authored its Declaration of Independence, addressed the question of America’s unique identity among the nations of the world. As he watched the Industrial Revolution begin to change both the landscape and the population of a nation he dearly loved, he asked if Americans were, in fact, intended by Providence for a special relationship with the soil. Should Americans be growing raw materials, or should we be manufacturing products?
Jefferson is, in large measure, a flawed apostle for the values he advances. His own connection with the land of which he writes might best be termed “vicarious,” given the more than 200 African American slaves who worked his Monticello estate—men, women, and children who hoed the corn and grew the fruit that ended on his table. He might have better grasped his own truths in wielding an axe or weeding a garden. That said, his words still hold their worth, despite the challenge of implementation today. Jefferson wrote:
“The political economists of Europe have established it as a principle that every state should endeavor to manufacture for itself: and this principle, like many others, we transfer to America, without calculating the difference of circumstance which should often produce a difference of result. In Europe the lands are either cultivated, or locked up against the cultivator. Manufacture must therefore be resorted to of necessity not of choice, to support the surplus of their people.”3
Jefferson argues that freedom—and good government—are best preserved by those who have a living connection with the soil.
In Europe they have to make “stuff” (manufactured goods) because there are so many people, and limited permission to work the constantly diminishing farmland.
“But we have an immensity of land courting the industry of the husbandman [farmer]. Those who labor in the earth are the chosen people of God, if ever he had a chosen people, whose breasts he has made his peculiar deposit for substantial and genuine virtue. It is the focus in which he keeps alive that sacred fire, which otherwise might escape from the face of the earth.”4
That’s his thesis: —that those who grow things are knit closely with the divine.
“Corruption of morals in the mass of cultivators is a phenomenon of which no age nor nation has furnished an example. It is the mark set on those, who not looking up to heaven, to their own soil and industry, as does the husbandman, for their subsistence, depend for it on the casualties and caprice of customers.”5
Jefferson believed it was virtually impossible for a nation’s morals to degrade because its citizens spent too much time in their gardens.
“Dependence begets subservience and venality, suffocates the germ of virtue, and prepares fit tools for the designs of ambition. This, the natural progress and consequence of the arts, has sometimes perhaps been retarded by accidental circumstances: but, generally speaking, the proportion which the aggregate of the other classes of citizens bears in any state to that of its husbandmen is the proportion of its unsound to its healthy parts, and is a good-enough barometer whereby to measure its degree of corruption.”6
When populations are completely dependent on others for sustenance (food and housing), they inevitably injure both society and their own souls. In Jefferson’s view, a healthy society depends on those who live in closest contact with the land. Societies that ignore this truth will move inevitably toward corruption.
“The mobs of great cities add just so much to the support of pure government, as sores do to the strength of the human body. It is the manners and spirit of a people which preserve a republic in vigor. A degeneracy in these is a canker which soon eats to the heart of its laws and constitution.”7
Against the centuries-old trend of urbanization and industrialization, Jefferson argues that freedom—and good government—are best preserved by those who have a living connection with the soil.
When AI (artificial intelligence) has replaced all drivers; when retail and fast-food outlets no longer need humans to check you out as you purchase your L. L. Bean sweaters or sample McDonald’s latest offerings; when factories are assembling products and housing with robots who never laugh or cry or think; if current trends continue, fewer jobs will be filled by humans. And what will be the result of avoiding sweat and toil and dirt?
“It is the manners and spirit of a people which preserve a republic in vigor!”
The secret of any successful nation, Jefferson argues, lies in its foundational commitment to manual labor, contact with the soil, and the independence that naturally results from these.
Jefferson’s haunting words have more than an echo in lines written by Ellen White, Adventist pioneer and visionary. Writing more than a century after Jefferson, she also described the intimate connection between growing things and growing character:
“It was God’s plan for [humans] to till the earth.” Adam, “ruler of the whole world,” and “many of the world’s greatest men, its real nobility,” have been farmers. The field serves the king himself (
Eccl. 5:9). And God Himself instructs and teaches the farmer (Isa. 28:26). Whoever tends the tree gets to eat its fruit (Prov. 27:18). Agriculture is a deliverance from temptation that affords “unnumbered privileges and blessings denied to those whose work lies in the great cities.” Little in the business world can provide “so real an independence and so great certainty of fair return for . . .labor” as does agriculture.8
Elsewhere, Ellen White wrote about God’s plan for Israel: “Every family had a home on the land, with sufficient ground for tilling.” People would lead “a useful, industrious, and self-supporting life. And no devising of men has ever improved upon that plan.” Its decline greatly contributes to “the poverty and wretchedness that exist today.”9
Ellen White’s vision extends beyond the boundaries of the Seventh-day Adventist movement she helped to found. She pondered the beneficial impact of these ideas upon societies that may not yet recognize the rule and providence of God:
“Thus, also, our schools could aid effectively in the disposition of the unemployed masses. Thousands of helpless and starving beings, whose numbers are daily swelling the ranks of the criminal classes, might achieve self-support in a happy, healthy, independent life if they could be directed in skillful, diligent labor in the tilling of the soil.”10
I get it: This is strong, countercultural stuff. It runs against the current of the times, and thus challenges some of the “sacred” norms of today’s Millennials. But it is a question both worth asking and knowing the answer to: Is the secret to making America and the character of its men and women great literally beneath us?
In the beginning, humans were given a garden to live in, work in, and in which to grow. Scripture tells us that at the end of 1,000 years in heaven we will return to this earth, again to live in close connection with the soil: “They will build houses and dwell in them; they will plant vineyards and eat their fruit” (Isa. 65:21).
Now, that’s a millennium every thinking Millennial ought to be investing in.
Farmer Jared Thurmon is liason for strategic partnerships for Adventist Review Ministries.