America isn’t a place it’s an idea, an idea rooted in principles found in the honored creed, “We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights; that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” Surely, we think these deep fundamental beliefs must extend to all people, even beyond our borders. If not, they are not sacred, core principles but instead only a symbolic offer with no intent of fulfillment or as Dr. King suggested “a check with insufficient funds.”
America is not living up to its ideals. The United States has less than 5% of the world’s population but has 25% of the world’s prisoners. The world has 60 million refugees, 30 million are children, and yet we take in fewer than we have in thirty years. Guns and heroin kill more of our citizens each year than died in the Vietnam war. Wealth inequality is at an all time high, climate change threatens our very existence and our disdain for those who come here seeking a better life is a stain on all of us.
Our troubles when compared to our values display a scene of inconsistency, even hypocrisy. In short, we have fallen short in living up to our ideals. But this has always been America’s story. We dream big and fall short. We aspire to lofty ideals but our day to day is messy and inconsistent will those principles. The founders didn’t give their cherished freedom to all, certainly not slaves, women, Native Americans, religious minorities, or many others. But something in the creed kept us pushing forward, caused us to break through and more perfectly moved us to try to live up to our ideals to extend the promised blessings to more and resist, even at the expense of our lives, the exclusion of those ideals.
There has always been resistance to change and there always will be. If we believe and honor our cherished ideals we fight for change, change that will allow those blessings to spread to every corner of the earth. Those ideals must more than guide us, they must drive us! Fear, ignorance, bigotry and greed have always been the foil of freedom and equality. We can never embrace ignorance as a virtue or treat fear as the voice of reason.
We can and must deal with all of our national and global problems through the lens of these sacred principles. How we live up to these blessings and extend them to others will, of course, meet with differing ideas, competing interests and the clash and din of politics and debate. We can embrace that, knowing, in the words of Adlai Stevenson, “when opinions clash freedom rings.”
We can’t however allow fear to be our guide or anger to be our motivator. Reason and passion must lead us, in that order. Certainly a country, even when aspiring to such grand ideals, must have laws and borders, policies and restrictions. But those laws, borders, regulations and mechanics of governing should be driven by the desire to extend the blessings of democracy, freedom, opportunity and equality. We should never allow those grotesque voices, weak and scarce of intellect or integrity, seek to limit those blessings to just those who got here first. We honor our patriots and pioneers by extending those blessings and we desecrate their sacrifice when we do not. We cannot pretend to honor those who gave all if we are not willing to give to those who need the most. We must not use the blessings of prosperity and power they have worked for and died for to isolate, alienate or exclude.
We are nationally in a dark moment but we have been here before. Now is the time to summon the heroes, the patriots, the statesman, to do the great work set before us. Ours is a moment of unimaginable wealth, intellect, prosperity and opportunity. A moment we must not squander with apathy, indifference or worse yet malice. We can and should use this moment to remind ourselves of and recommit ourselves to our most cherished ideals and dedicate ourselves to the noble task of expanding those blessings to include others.
“With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation’s wounds, to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan, to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations.” (Abraham Lincoln, second inaugural address).