WHAT IS AMERICA TO ME?
There is an inspiring World War II song, "The House I Live In," that asks:
What is America to me?
A name, a map, or a flag I see;
A certain word, democracy.
What is America to me?
It's a question we don't consider often enough, if at all. But today, a kind of soul searching is needed. Our understanding of America will profoundly shape our actions—and those actions will leave their mark on America and the rest of the world. How we see our country and our role as citizens will either lead us to protect, defend, and nurture her—or sit idly by as our precious heritage slips away.
At this moment in our history, when we face so many challenges at home and abroad, we need to consider anew this crucial question.
What is America to me?
Who are we as Americans? Who do we want to be? What traditions and principles do we need to preserve as we move forward? What of our American experience is worth fighting for? (And just because you might not wear a military uniform, don't think you are exempt from answering that last question.) These are queries that should be pondered by all Americans and all those who wish to be.
To me, America will always be a land of unbridled opportunity, unrivaled beauty, and unlimited possibility. It is a place where each of us has a shot to reach our potential. Rooted in truth, decency, and timeless values, America is ever forward looking; constantly innovating while inspiring the rest of the world. Echoing John Winthrop (and the Bible), Ronald Reagan captured it best when he described America as "the shining city on a hill." In his farewell address, he unpacked this vision and explained what we are, and must be, in this new millennium:
In my mind, it was a tall, proud city built on rocks stronger than oceans, wind-swept, God-blessed, and teeming with people of all kinds living in harmony and peace; a city with free ports that hummed with commerce and creativity, and if there had to be city walls, the walls had doors and the doors were open to anyone with the will and the heart to get here. That's how I saw it, and see it still . . . after two hundred years, two centuries, she still stands strong and true on the granite ridge, and her glow has held steady no matter what storm. And she's still a beacon, still a magnet for all who must have freedom, for all the pilgrims from all the lost places who are hurtling through the darkness, toward home.
Just reading the words puts a lump in my throat. Which isn't an isolated occurrence. I also happen to get choked up at ball games. Not by the game itself, but by the National Anthem. Every time I hear it sung or see a stadium full of people with their hands over their hearts, I feel a little tingle. Whenever I spot a veteran standing at attention before a passing flag in a Memorial Day parade, tears inevitably well up in my eyes. It's not sentimentality, but an emotional reaction to this truth: many have sacrificed for what those stars and stripes represent, and the sacrifice continues. How can one help but be moved and humbled by the long trail of blood and sweat that established our "city on a hill" and defended her promise around the world?
Our challenge now, as engaged citizens, is to translate our emotions into clear principles, practices, and habits that rise above the political or cultural winds of the moment. What can we do, personally, to expand the greatness of our country? What steps can we take to extend the sacrifice of those who paid the ultimate price for our freedom to make choices?
I believe that our work needs to begin deep within ourselves. We the people must refine ourselves, as individuals, before we can refine our community and our nation. No one else will do it for us. Not the government, not the media, and certainly not the "international community." We are the ones who will either stand up and defend what we know to be true, or permit others to twist and destroy the last, best hope of mankind. What is at stake is our way of life, our ideals, and our very future.
The house I live in,
A plot of earth, a street,
The grocer and the butcher,
Or the people that I meet;
The children in the playground,
The faces that I see,
All races and religions,
That's America to me.
Like the first settlers in this land, people continue to come to our shores seeking freedom. They embrace and celebrate our ideals in ways that shame native-born Americans. The English writer G. K. Chesterton, in his work What I Saw in America, put in this way: "[T]he great American experiment . . . a democracy of diverse races . . . has been compared to a melting-pot. But even that metaphor implies that the pot itself is of a certain shape and a certain substance; a pretty solid substance. The melting-pot must not melt. .
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