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Fanning the Flame: American Values in the 21st Century

By March 6, 2012

Americans, we are constantly reminded, are disunited and disconnected from one another. We are divided into red and blue states, the “99 percent and the 1 percent,” rural and urban, Boomers and Xers, hawks and doves, labor and management, haves and have-nots, and a kaleidoscope of faiths and ethnicities. The examples of division and difference seem endless.

 

Yet we are one people—at least we are supposed to be. One of our national mottos, after all, is E Pluribus Unum, “out of many, one.” If that phrase ceases to have meaning to Americans, this young century will not be another American century. The challenge is to identify the common ground that all Americans share—the values that bind us together and set us apart from other countries—and then to promote those values in our civic life.

 

To be sure, values are a sensitive subject nowadays. Values are a statement of what matters to a person or to a nation, and so they can be exclusive or subjective, which makes some people uncomfortable in an age awash in moral relativism. But there are core values that Americans have always embraced—and need to rediscover today.

 

Freedom is one of those values. After all, America’s founding document was a declaration of independence arguing that each person has a right to life, liberty and the pursuit of his or her own happiness.

 

Jefferson’s masterpiece wasn’t a license to do whatever feels good, or to impinge on another’s liberty, or to live a life of aimless leisure at someone else’s expense, or to make endless demands for rights and entitlements. The Constitution—which begins with the phrase “We the people,” not “I the individual”—serves to clarify this truth.

 

In other words, the freedom that binds all Americans is a virtuous freedom, an empowering freedom, a freedom that liberates the individual to worship and speak and assemble and work and serve.

 

That’s the kind of freedom Americans should strive for as they continue to form a more perfect union in the 21st century.

 

Another core value that Americans have historically embraced is a respect for faith.

 

Gallup reports that 92 percent of Americans believe in God. That’s a staggering level of consensus for a country as diverse as ours. Yet given the central role faith has played in America’s development, it’s not particularly surprising. Any country where people vote in churches, where presidents lead prayer breakfasts, where legislative business opens with a chaplain’s prayer, where the chief magistrates enter their chambers to the refrain, “God save the United States and this Honorable Court,” where currency is emblazoned with the phrase “In God We Trust” is not secular. And that’s not a bad thing. In fact, it’s a characteristic that should make Americans proud.

 

Yet it is not our faith that unites us, but rather our respect for faith. That’s an important distinction. Church and state coexist in America’s public square. The danger of one co-opting the other is a subject for another essay; suffice it to say that Americans have come to a consensus that they don’t want religion to control government (like the Islamic Republic of Iran) and they don’t want government to control religion (like the People’s Republic of China).

 

We should remember that our ancestors came to this continent to practice their faith and build a society open to faith. Since then, faith and people of faith have played an indispensable role in America:

 

• Twenty years before the Declaration of Independence, Gen. George Washington asked that a minister be assigned to his regiment. Later, he warned that “Reason and experience both forbid us to expect that national morality can prevail in exclusion of religious principle.”

 

• Jefferson’s masterpiece document announcing the nation’s birth invokes “the laws of nature and of nature’s God'' and declares that all people “are endowed by their Creator” with unalienable rights.

 

• After 9/11, America’s president led a National Day of Prayer at the National Cathedral. Why would a secular nation need such a facility or sanction such a day?

 

The answer, as Alexis de Tocqueville observed in the 1830s, is that Americans have a deep appreciation for the role of faith in public life. “I do not know whether all Americans have a sincere faith in religion—for who can search the human heart—but I am certain that they hold it to be indispensable to the maintenance of republican institutions,” he wrote.

 

What was true in the 19th century remains true in the 21st. Respect for faith—religious liberty—helps support a free society. It is not the promotion or establishment of faith. Instead, it’s a constraining, even humbling, reminder that there is something bigger and more powerful than the individual or the government. We don’t have to worship on the same days or in the same ways to recognize this truth.

 

There is a third core value that is essential to America’s unity and success in the 21st century: the belief in American exceptionalism. Sadly, this core value is not as widely or openly accepted as it once was.

 

Conditioned to view patriotic sentiment as politically incorrect or old-fashioned, too many Americans either dismiss American exceptionalism or apologize for believing in it. The president’s response to a reporter’s question during the 2009 NATO Summit is a case in point. “I believe in American exceptionalism,” he said, before adding, “just as the Brits believe in British exceptionalism, and the Greeks in Greek exceptionalism.”

 

Of course, if every nation is exceptional, then no nation is exceptional, which explains why the president wisely elaborated: “I’m enormously proud of my country and its role and history in the world…I think that we have a core set of values that are enshrined in our Constitution, in our body of law, in our democratic practices, in our belief in free speech and equality, that, though imperfect, are exceptional.”

 

What the president was saying is that the United States is exceptional—period—no matter what Hollywood and academia tell us. What other nation’s founding document triggered a global freedom revolution? What other country tore itself apart to end slavery? Name another nation where an Afghan immigrant becomes an ambassador, where a refugee from Czechoslovakia is entrusted with conducting foreign policy, where a Taiwanese or Cuban immigrant grows up to serve in the Senate or in the president’s cabinet, where a kid can start out as the son of a Soviet army officer, survive the Nazis, flee from the Red Army and turn out to be the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

 

What country saved Europe from itself in 1917 and then, just a generation later, saved the world from a second dark age? And when those wars were over, what did America do? Our country didn’t seize territory or haul away the spoils of war, like so many others. Instead, Americans transformed Germany and Japan. Americans left behind constitutions guaranteeing free government, equal rights, free speech and religious liberty. And as Reagan observed when his generation reached middle age, “they hated war more than they hated the enemy” so “they came back from war and created an organization to outlaw war.” What other country would attempt that?

 

After the war that rescued civilization, Americans put their security on the line for Europe and Asia, facing down Stalin and his successors for nearly half-a-century. No other country had both the will and capacity to shoulder this burden.

 

Today, it is America that keeps the sea lanes open, responds to disasters of biblical proportion in places as disparate as Sumatra and Haiti and Japan, polices the world’s toughest neighborhoods, and serves as civilization’s first responder and last line of defense. No other nation is entrusted with such an awesome responsibility. Indeed, no other nation is trusted like America: Afghanistan wants American troops to excise Taliban scar tissue. Kosovo, Korea and Kuwait want America to maintain regional stability. From Germany to Georgia, those who remember a Europe divided by concrete walls and iron curtains want American forces on their soil as a hedge against a revisionist Russia. And across the Pacific, from Japan and Vietnam to the Philippines and Australia, those who worry about an emergent China are strengthening their ties with America.

 

Critics of American power may refuse to recognize America’s special role. But by turning to America when tsunamis swallow South Asia, genocide is let loose in Europe, famine devours Africa, nuclear weapons sprout up here or there, or chaos overtakes some faraway land, they are tacitly conceding that America is, well, special.

 

The American people need to understand this and need to know that it’s alright to believe in American exceptionalism. And that means they need to appreciate America’s history. This core value must be cultivated by a renaissance in civic learning. It’s worth recalling in this regard how Tocqueville noticed that “Americans are separated from all other nations by a feeling of pride…they conceive a high opinion of their superiority and are not very remote from believing themselves to be a distinct species of mankind.”

 

In other words, Americans used to be taught that they lived in an exceptional country. We need to return to that model.

 

Yes, teachers should teach about America’s imperfections, but they should not focus on them. America is not perfect, but it is good. To reinforce this truth and to revive the core value of American exceptionalism, RADM Robert Spiro has suggested that “The ASCF could start a movement emphasizing patriotic and civic education.” It’s easy to imagine ASCF and other civic-minded groups—the Military Officers Association of America, American Legion and Veterans of Foreign Wars—partnering with schools, libraries and youth athletic leagues to tell America’s story; launching teach-the-teacher workshops to help educators in their important work; and connecting with young people to describe American exceptionalism, to encourage loyalty and service to country, and to explain why America is deserving of that loyalty.

 

The good news is that, despite all the politically correct bunk in the classroom and on TV, America’s youth still have an inner sense of American exceptionalism. Just consider what happened after justice caught up with Osama bin Laden. Amazingly, unexpectedly, America’s young people didn’t apologize for what SEAL Team 6 accomplished. Instead, they took to the streets, sang the “Star Spangled Banner” and waved the American flag outside the White House. Some chanted “USA!” in Times Square. Others emerged from their dorm rooms to hoist the colors—our colors—high.

 

In short, a flame of patriotism still flickers inside America. It’s time to fan that flame.

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