What is America? A Fourth of July Reflection
Good morning to all of you. May your celebrations of the first steps of America into the world be enjoyable and blessed. I normally wouldn’t pull out my laptop to get on the Internet while on vacation but have decided to take some time to reflect on those things which have stood out to me this past year. (Oh the wonders of the contemporary world which allows me to pick up random internet connections!)
I have found myself asking, “What is America? What is the foundational aspect of America, and what is it that we celebrate when we sing her praises?” When all cards are put on the table, when all cogitations shine forth from the minds of thinkers far and wide, it seems to me that one must affirm that America is not as much a country as it is an idea. In specific, that idea is that human liberty is the only means by which a good society can be born into the world and be sustained in its existence. In its founding, America acknowledged that the individual must not be squashed under the slithering Leviathan of the government, that the individual was the locus of dignity from which the state receives any of its power.
In our constitution, “We the people,” acknowledged the faults and foibles of humanity, laying down laws in order to codify the necessary precautionary steps which should be taken to prevent human corruption from tainting our unity. In this, the Constitution is a limitation on Freedom, or more importantly, a directional molding of our freedoms. It is through this lens that I have begun to understand more what the promise of America is.
It is impossible to deny that Humanity, as a corporate whole and as individuals, is fallen and continues to sin day after day. It does not take a prelate of the Catholic Church to affirm this most fundamental reality. Sin is the great destroyer of unity, breaking bonds among people, disabling trust, freezing Love in the harsh ice block of fear and resentment. Any group of people who is sinful will not long work together as a “we” but will instead become nothing more than an agglomeration of separated “I”s, no longer working in concert but in unharmonious discord. Sinful man requires direction (and Love) in order to overcome the disunity born of the Fall, and this very fact is the basis for the Constitution and for all laws which are right and true. The law is not only a means of limitation but also a means of admonition and purification leading back to freedom. (Ultimately man is not made for Law but for Freedom, although Freedom is only wholly possible where sin no longer abounds.)
It is in America that we realize that there must be flux and limitation to the extent and application of legislation, for any nation which is comprised of those who require continual control cannot sustain itself very long without crumbling into decadence and barbarism. Alexis de Tocqueville, who spent some time studying the rising American democracy in the nineteenth century, was acutely aware of the strengths (as well as the weaknesses) in America’s foundation. There are three quotes by him which should excellently focus our considerations here.
Democracy and socialism have nothing in common but one word, equality. But notice the difference: while democracy seeks equality in liberty, socialism seeks equality in restraint and servitude.
“America is great because she is good. If America ceases to be good, America will cease to be great.”
“The greatness of America lies not in being more enlightened than any other nation, but rather in her ability to repair her faults.”
Many people laud the progress of socialist democracies in Europe, presenting them as a corrective for our “unfair” liberal democracy in America. I would argue that socialist democracies are merely a liberal democracy which has passed many laws to control the freedom of individuals in an attempt to make the nation more unified in goodness. However, I also would argue that this is like setting up a colony under water in order to remain dry. It might seem that this contradicts my early thoughts. However, I said there is a limit to such legislation in America. The limit of legislation comes with the realization that individuals must ultimately be formed by their own use of freedom. A liberal democracy cries aloud with Alexis, “Americans must be good in themselves! If we aren’t we shall fall!” Law works to repair the faults of individuals, but only so that individuals can stand on their own to make the free choices based on their own experience and own goodness. People must freely choose goodness for itself and not out of fear of retribution. Man must act in secret as he would act in public if all relationships are to be cemented and unified.
So we come in the end to something of a preliminary answer to the question of “What is the idea which is America?” It is namely this: The human person is the singular building block of any great society. No amount of legislation can make a nation which runs itself. The idea of America is that the goodness of the people will provide for the goodness of the State, that the public does not drive the private but that the private (and hence, freely chosen) firmly steers the movements of public progress. Freedom is at the core of Creation, a precondition for the entire cosmic symphony which ultimately brought forth Man as part of the rise of consciousness and Love. Such freedom is ordained by the Creator and is the only path which may lead to a good humanity, a good populace, a good world, and, ultimately, a good universe. Goodness must be chosen for its own merit by the locus of freedom, the individual person.
Freedom is not corporate by nature but is something which is grasped by the individual and redirected to corporate reality. This is the “Idea of America,” an idea which will be of increasing importance as we ultimately work toward a world which is unified in our common humanity. Humanity can only be joined if humans are good, and humans are only conditioned by the Law, not defined thereby. In the final analysis, goodness is chosen and not imposed; all who believe this, no matter what their location or time period, are Americans in the truest sense.
May the Almighty bless you and yours on the Fourth of July and unto the ages of ages. Let us always celebrate the centrality of the individual in establishing the whole of unified humanity. Let Freedom, Goodness, and Love reign now and always!