It is the 4th of July. It is a beautiful, warm, sunny day and we will do one traditional thing – barbecue some burgers and hot dogs. Otherwise, the holiday doesn’t have much meaning this year. I’m not taking much pride in being American, sad to say.
I am a baby boomer – slipped in under the wire, being born in 1959. I don’t know who decides these things, who defines the generations, but I meet the criteria. As a product of that time, I believed in American exceptionalism. The lessons learned at school, and the broader culture, taught me that this country was special, born of an idea that we were all created equal, and we were free in ways other citizens in other countries were not. I was born into the Cold War – people in the Soviet Union could not criticize their government without fear of imprisonment, they did not enjoy the riches and abundance of the free market, they weren’t allowed to practice religion (I was especially aware of this as a Jew) among many other rights. But, not only that, I thought we were better even than England where people were born into a class and couldn’t rise above it. When America won gold at the Olympic games, my heart swelled with pride when our national anthem played. I believed we were the good guys.
I came to understand that we weren’t always the good guys in foreign policy. We sometimes supported regimes that were repressive or corrupt because we thought it was in our economic interests. As I became more educated and experienced in the world, I didn’t dismiss these instances, but I accepted that there were some limits to our choices; our country existed in a real world with bad actors. I still had faith, though, with effective leadership and if our values informed our policies, we could be a force for good.
As I grew up, and became more educated about our history, I came to understand that we weren’t quite as exceptional as I thought. I still believed in the essential values that were our foundation, freedom and equal opportunity, but I realized that we had not fulfilled those promises. Race riots and the women’s movement made me aware that we didn’t all have equal opportunity. When the founding fathers wrote the Declaration of Independence and our Constitution, they used the term ‘men’ purposefully. We needed to expand the concept. We had work to do to make that a reality. But, I accepted that this was something that could be achieved through new laws and improved education. I believed that the majority of Americans wanted to realize that promise.
Today my faith is shaken. It seems that a powerful portion of the American people don’t share my understanding of the foundational values that I thought inform our institutions. I thought freedom meant that people could worship as they chose, if it wasn’t infringing on others or violating laws, but that religion was not endorsed by the government. Increasingly it seems that our Supreme Court has thrown that idea by the wayside. A coach, an employee of a public school system, can lead his team in Christian prayer in the middle of the football field. A Christian concept of when life begins dictates a woman’s right to reproductive choice. The right to bear arms outweighs sensible limitations. If polls are to be believed, though, the majority of Americans don’t agree with these policies. So, where does that leave us?
The very idea of democracy, that the will of the majority of people determines the government’s course of action, is being thwarted. Everything I learned, that we have a “government of the people, by the people and for the people,” is at risk. I just re-read the Gettysburg Address, from which the phrase I quoted above derives, and I remind myself not to give up. I highly recommend refreshing your memory by reading it (here).
These ideals are worth fighting for; all is not lost. These Supreme Court decisions need not be the final word. Congress can act. State legislatures can act. Governors make a difference. Local school boards are relevant. We need to be vigilant, and we need to vote – in primaries and in November. Perhaps this holiday, this 4th of July, can help to remind us of our promise and obligation.
Okay, I’m feeling better about the holiday. I hope you are too.