American Ideals

I spent the week of the Fourth of July speaking about religion and public life at the Aspen Ideas Festival. On Independence Day, there was a panel called "What Does America Stand for Today?" Various panelists extolled the American virtues of liberty, equality, justice, and equal opportunity. Another praised the fact that we are a nation of immigrants and have been an "open society" (despite the recent defeat of immigration reform). An evening panel, which included Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer, discussed how important it is to be a nation that accepts the rule of law and that has a Constitution designed to always expand democracy and extend inclusion.

But when one panelist in the first discussion said that the question of "what America stands for" looks very different from inside the United States than from outside, you could see and feel people starting to bristle. From outside our borders in the rest of the world, he suggested, they don't speak of U.S. liberty and justice but rather of Guantanamo Bay and Abu Ghraib. Another pointed out that American inequality is now greater than any time since the Gilded Age, and everybody talked about the horrible mistake of Iraq. When the suggestion was made that perhaps pride in our ideals sometimes leads us to the sin of hubris, to preaching more than listening, and ultimately to multilateral action in the world that proves disastrous, things got tense. And when he suggested more American humility--well, let's just say we had some early Fourth of July fireworks right there on the stage.

But that reaction misses the point about American ideals. Many have pointed out how some of the most famous framers of the Constitution itself failed to live up to its ideals. And American history has been nothing less that the steady battle of a country trying to live up to its ideals. When it comes to their practice, we have certainly fallen short of the truths that we hold to be "self-evident." I thought of the genius of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., who held a Bible in one hand and a Constitution in the other as he called the American people to the values of both. Because we have said that these ideals about human rights are rooted in the belief that men and women are made in the image of God, an appeal to both our religious and constitutional convictions has often been the best road to social change. Most of the great social reform movements of our history have had those ideals at their heart and have been fueled and driven in part by faith and the need for spiritual transformation to undergird social transformation.

Then I read Michael Gerson's op-ed piece in The Washington Post, which said much of what I was also feeling on this July Fourth. Mike and I disagree on some things, like the war in Iraq, but he makes some powerful points here about our history and our faith, and I thought I would pass them along to you. During your days of holiday rest and recreation, do think about our ideals and what each of us might do to more deeply put them into practice.