Thursday, July 05, 2007

Celebrating the American Creed

One of the most fascinating things about the Fourth of July is how the holiday generates tremendous deep thinking about our national origins. In particular, Independence Day engenders reflections about the American Creed, that set of values that embody our political culture. A nation's political culture reflects that country's deep-seated beliefs of the people concerning government and politics. The political culture of the United States is particularly resonant -- with its enduring emphasis on individualism (the commitment to personal initiative, self-sufficiency, and material accumulation) -- which is bolstered by our national traditions of liberty, equality, and self-government.

Our national Creed is not static, and the values our heritage embraces have often not been upheld in practice. There is, for example, the original contradiction in our nation's founding between the ideal that "all men are created eqaul" and our practice of human chattel slavery, which was institutionalized in the Constitution of 1787.

Michael Gerson took a look at this paradox in his commentary at the Washington Post yesterday. Gerson cites William Lloyd Garrison, who said that:

Rather than celebrate...Americans should "spike every cannon and haul down every banner" because of the "glaring contradiction" between the Declaration of Independence and the practice of slavery. The grievances of slaves, he argued, made the grievances of the American colonists look like trivial whining. "I am ashamed of my country," he concluded. "I am sick of our unmeaning declamation in praise of liberty and equality; of our hypocritical cant about the unalienable rights of man."
Gerson notes that Garrison powerfully identified that wrenching contradiction in the nation's development. Yet, the power of liberty and equality -- the same ideals that Garrison "declaimed" -- has made it possible for the United States to overcome its institutional hierarchies of the founding. Gerson cites the words of Martin Luther King, Jr., to make the case:

The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. recognized that America has a "schizophrenic personality, tragically divided against herself." But we are redeemed, he argued, by our creed, expressed in the Declaration of Independence, which manages "to forever challenge us; to forever give us a sense of urgency; to forever stand in the midst of the 'isness' of our terrible injustices; to remind us of the 'oughtness' of our noble capacity for justice and love and brotherhood." Americans, he said, believe in "certain basic rights that are neither derived from nor conferred by the state. . . . They are God-given, gifts from his hands."

"You may take my life," King said, "but you can't take my right to life. You may take liberty from me, but you can't take my right to liberty." And this creed of "amazing universalism" calls "America to do a special job for mankind and the world . . . because America is the world in miniature and the world is America writ large."

The privileged and powerful can love America for many reasons. The oppressed and powerless, stripped of selfish motives for their love, have found America lovely because of its ideals.

It is typical of America that our great national day is not the celebration of a battle -- or, as in the case of France, the celebration of a riot. It is the celebration of a political act, embedded in a philosophic argument: that the rights of man are universal because they are rooted in the image of God. That argument remains controversial. Some view all claims of universal truth with skepticism. Some believe such claims by America amount to hubris.

Which is why some of us love this holiday so much. It is the day when cynicism is silent. It is the day when Americans recall that "all men are created equal" somehow applies to the Mexican migrant and the Iraqi shopkeeper and the inner-city teenager. And it is the day we honor those who take this fact seriously. Those in our military who fight for the liberty of strangers are noble. Those dissidents who risk much in
Burma, Zimbabwe, North Korea and China are heroic. Those who work against poverty and injustice in America are patriots -- because patriotism does not require us to live in denial, only to live in hope.

In America we respect, defend and obey the Constitution -- but we change it when it is inconsistent with our ideals. Those ideals are defined by the Declaration of Independence. We have not always lived up to them. But we would not change them for anything on Earth.

Gerson's point is not embraced by everyone, particularly those unflinching radicals on the left who never tire of denouncing this country as imperialist and oppressive (see here and here, for example). The fact that America tolerates that kind of opposition is itself a demonstration of the power of our national ideals.

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