Sunday, July 4, 2010

Why America is worth defending

I pledge allegiance to my Flag and the Republic for which it stands, one nation, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.

~ The original Pledge of Allegiance

American flagToday's lesson in church was all about how the United States is a choice nation blessed by God himself, how the Constitution was divinely inspired, and how true patriots should love and follow the Lord Jesus Christ. The instructor even got in a dig against all those silly people who want to remove God from the Pledge of Allegiance. "Chill out," I think he said. But seriously, everything that is good about America was flatly asserted to be tied to belief in God, Jesus, and specifically, the Mormon church.

I get a little tired of all the quote-mining and emotional rah-rahing that is supposed to prove that obviously this is a Christian nation and obviously God blesses us only when we believe in him and marginalize those who don't. One lady during testimony time said something like, "The more I read the New Testament, the less I understand how the Jews could reject Jesus. He's so clearly the Messiah!" Um... yes, I suppose one might get that impression by taking the Christian scriptures at face value. I don't think I've ever slapped my forehead so hard during church, and that's saying something.

Normally I tend to keep quiet because I'm not sure I have anything helpful to say, but today I needed to speak up.

I didn't bring up the fact that the Constitution does not mention God, Christ, Jesus, a Creator, or anything like that. I didn't mention that the Treaty of Tripoli, signed by President John Adams in 1797, states explicitly that "the Government of the United States of America is not, in any sense, founded on the Christian religion". I didn't mention that the "under God" clause was only added to the Pledge of the Allegiance in 1954 at the height of McCarthy anti-communist xenophobia.

What I did share is something absolutely dear to me. I said that to me, the heart of patriotism and my love for freedom is embodied by a quote commonly attributed to Voltaire (a French philosopher, I dared to mention). "I disagree with what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it." This is the attitude on which is based our freedom of expression, freedom of religion, freedom of association... all the basic human freedoms America claims to value and ensure.

I said that you cannot go to every country in the world and vocalize your dissatisfaction with your neighbor or your government. In some countries, you will find yourself incarcerated or even executed. I think that perhaps the most fundamental virtue of America is the fact that we have the right to disagree peaceably. I have noticed an escalating polarization, especially in our nation's politics, where we tend to demonize those we disagree with, to call them unpatriotic, not real Americans, or worse. I said that we need to recognize that we are all trying to do what is right and what is best for our country, and it does not help when we refuse to listen to those we disagree with. I expressed hope that we are not taking for granted our individual right to express ourselves, and the corresponding responsibility to hear others' expression.

Okay, that's probably not exactly what I said. But it was pretty much along those lines. My point is that flag-waving means nothing to me. It's too easy and superficial. I don't believe the USA is #1 just because we wave a giant foam finger that says so. I believe that America has fundamental strengths that many of its citizens don't fully appreciate. They are difficult strengths and rare human virtues, the kind that have to be paid for with the blood of patriots. It's not just a matter of repeating a mantra, that America is the "greatest" nation in the world, whatever that means. It's also not a matter of promoting our own religious ideology above all others. It is a matter of honoring the freedoms that our valiant dead have died for, and treasuring the exchange of ideas that our system makes possible. It's a matter of defending our right to disagree, even when it feels more natural to try to squelch the competition by shouting them down. Let's not take that greatness for granted.

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