What Does it Mean to be an American?

Old Glory 1.jpg

We—we “Americans”—seem to be more divided today than at any time I can remember.  The Left can’t stand the Right, and the Right thinks the Left is comprised of “snowflakes.”  Progressives think “the rich don’t pay their fair share,” while those in the top one percent of income earners lament that they contribute almost 25% of all federal revenues collected.  And, there are those among us who seem to look for opportunities to divide us along racial lines in ways that I suspect the students in my integrated high school would have found laughable.  Back then, we all made an effort to get along, although perhaps not always as well as we should have.

What prompted me to write this essay was a report I saw about a television personality who was downright gleeful when she learned that President Trump’s proposed summit with Kim Jong-un, the leader of North Korea, might not take place.  Gleeful.  It made me sick.  Why would any American, regardless of her political beliefs, be happy about something like that?  Aren’t we all in this together?  Don’t we all want what’s good for America? 

But those questions caused me to ask another—more profound—question:  What exactly does it mean to be an American?

We are certainly not a pedigreed nation.  We are descendent from a variety of races, religions, and cultures, and yet we have come together as Americans.  So, what is it that binds us together?  What makes us Americans?

I think the answer is simple:  Americans believe in freedom.  It is our core value, enshrined in the Declaration of Independence, and more important than any other.  It defines us.  Americans believe that freedom is a God-given right—or, if you prefer, a fundamental part of the natural order.  Freedom is not granted to Americans by our government.  On the contrary, we came together to form a government precisely because we wanted to protect our freedom.  The government answers to us.

But that begs another question:  What exactly does it mean to say we believe in freedom?

A simplistic view would say that freedom means you get to do what you want.  But then, what about the other guy’s freedom?  What if your exercise of your freedom affects his exercise of his freedom?

We came together to form a country that respects individual freedom, but there are necessary limits to that freedom.  For me, the limits fall into two categories.  First, my exercise of my freedom should not impede your exercise of your freedom.  I might want to be free to target practice with a rifle in my backyard, but that would inhibit my next-door neighbor’s ability to be free to sunbathe in his backyard.  Second, my exercise of my freedom might be limited for the common good.  For example, the doctrine of eminent domain—the power of the government to take private property for public use—is recognized in the Fifth Amendment to the Constitution, which says the government can take private property for public use, provided the owner receives just compensation.  In other words, I shouldn’t be able to hold up the construction of a desperately needed highway because I don’t want to sell my land or grant an easement to come across it.

It’s my belief that the divisiveness we are facing today is borne of dramatically different views about the extent of those two categories of limitations on our freedom.

Back in the 1960s, the courts ruled that a restaurant owner is not “free” to refuse service to a customer based on the customer’s race.  It’s regrettable that they had to base those rulings on the government’s power to regulate interstate commerce.  For some reason that seems to diminish the morality of the decisions.  But they got the job done.  They promoted freedom in our society at large.

But where does it end?

Today, am I free to eat a ham sandwich on an airplane, even if it offends the vegan sitting next to me?  The government hasn’t gone that far yet, although there are some who think it should.  Is that correct?  Should the government require a baker to make a wedding cake for a gay couple, even if it offends the baker’s sincerely held religious beliefs?  What is the limit of the government’s ability to restrict an American from exercising his or her freedom to do something because it offends someone else?  I cannot say precisely, but I think we must be very careful in drawing those lines. 

Certainly, no one’s exercise of freedom should endanger someone else physically.  And religious beliefs should be respected, although there are limits to that.  Most Americans would agree that Muslim teachers should not be allowed to attempt to indoctrinate Christian students.  But then, Baptist teachers shouldn’t be allowed to proselytize to agnostic students either, should they?  We should not protect certain behaviors simply because we agree with them.  Restrictions on our freedom should be fair to all.  We most assuredly are not a theocracy, but I also don’t want the government to trample on my freedom to exercise my religious beliefs. 

And how should the government address things that offend people but have nothing to do with religion?  If we enter the realm of having the government worry about someone else’s psychological endangerment, I think we’re entering troubled waters.  But then, we have laws against child pornography, don’t we?  In short, there aren’t any easy answers.

What about that other category of limitations on our freedom:  limitations for the common good?

The classic example of that kind of limitation involves taxes.  The government takes part of what we earn to spend for the common good, such as expenditures for the military and law enforcement.  People who support Senator Bernie Sanders believe the government doesn’t take enough of what we earn, while those who support Senator Rand Paul believe the government takes far too much.  Thus, there are disagreements about both how much a person’s freedom should be limited for the common good and what constitutes the common good. 

And those disagreements—like those arising from the other category of limitations on our freedom—should be debated.  But that’s not what’s happening.

Today, it seems that every discussion on limiting the freedom of Americans is cast in absolute terms of right and wrong, allowing no room for disagreement, no room for compromise.  In fact, there is no real debate.  The discussion—if you can call it that—goes something like this:  If you disagree with me, you are immoral, you are a fascist, you want to kill children or old people or destroy the environment.  Or, alternatively, you are immoral, you are a fascist, you want to take away my hard-earned money and waste it, you want to censor what I say on a college campus or tell me what to do with my own property or take it away and give it to someone else because you claim it’s for the public good.  That kind of discourse is toxic to our American society.

It is my sincere hope that we, as Americans, get back to the core principle that defines us.  Freedom.  We must recognize that there are limits to our freedom, but we must demand that all leaders in our society—political, civic, and business—engage in a civil debate about those limits and stop demonizing those with whom they disagree.  And we should be suspicious of their motives.  Are they espousing something based on sincerely held beliefs or because it helps them obtain or maintain some kind of power?  If we don’t require our leaders to be respectful and sincere, then I fear this wonderful experiment in self-government that has lasted over 200 years will come to an end, and we will become but a brief episode in the expanse of human history, most of which is characterized by either tyranny or anarchy.