As happens all too often in my household, my son asked me a question that forced me to carefully think through my beliefs and values before offering an answer. I have to think carefully because I know, for sure and certain, he’s already trying to form that next question so if I’m not as specific and exacting as I can be, I give him huge maneuvering room to ask the more difficult questions. This week’s question really wasn’t so hard: “Dad, what makes an American an American?” The first and most obvious answer was, “Where he was born,” but that’s not what he was asking. He was looking for me to explain to him what values I felt that he, when he became an adult American, should have as part of his character. Long time readers know that such a conversation can’t be had without me sharing it, so here we go with an explanation of my answer.
I thought about my answer for a bit and finally got to the point where I had to write down a few character traits that I believed every American should embody, and that I felt our founding fathers valued. When I finished what I considered to be my most basic list, I had seven items. Each is defined (www.dictionary.com) below and then expanded on with comment.
Liberty: freedom from arbitrary or despotic government or control; freedom from external or foreign rule; independence. This was the core value that drove our founding fathers to fight against the British – to seek independence from the “foreign” crown. Ultimately however, those wise men who founded our great country recognized that despotic rule didn’t have to be foreign and they worked diligently to craft a government that would honor the liberty of each individual. Protections were built into our founding documents, most especially the Constitution, which strictly limited what the government could do. In fact, the Bill of Rights – the first 10 amendments to the Constitution – don’t empower the government at all, but are limiting controls preventing the government from acting in a way that would rob any individual of essential liberties. It is my belief that any American would recognize the importance of individual liberty.
Justice: the quality of being just; righteousness, equitableness, or moral rightness. In support of individual liberty we must often judge whether or not an action, law, rule, etc. is fair and equitable. More importantly we must decide whether or not it is JUST. The liberty we discussed immediately above was recognized by our founding fathers and a judicial system was built, in part, to protect Americans from unfair prosecution. The guidelines – the justice – that protects citizens from potentially unfair practices of the government also protects individuals from potentially unfair treatment or actions of other citizens. Without the presence of true justice, liberty cannot be maintained.
Courage: the quality of mind or spirit that enables a person to face difficulty, danger, pain, etc., without fear. In honoring liberty or pursuing justice, it is easy to find ourselves in situations that are at best uncomfortable and at worst dangerous. There are obvious examples of this in the law enforcement profession as officers arrest suspects. Quite often those suspects don’t want to be arrested; they don’t want to be brought to justice, and the fight they make presents dangerous situations to the officers. In a different light, courage is necessary to stand up to friends and family if they pursue a course of action that is unjust to another. As much as folks will laugh at me for the quote, Professor Dumbledore said it quite well in a Harry Potter movie: “to stand up to one’s enemies takes courage; to stand up to one’s friends takes quite a bit more.” Courage comes in many forms, but without it the fight to pursue justice and support liberty will be short lived. Americans, as a matter of state mentality, should never quit in the face of those who would deny any one of us justice or attempt to unlawfully limit the liberty of any citizen.
Honor: integrity in one’s beliefs and actions. Honor goes hand in hand with justice and helps motivate courage in support of justice and liberty. Quite often when one is faced with a situation where courage is required but very difficult, the temptation to give in to the unjust can be overcome by the recognition of what HONOR requires. Honor also means, “high respect for merit, and such respect manifested.” When we look back at the sacrifices made by those who created our country, and all of the sacrifices made by so many more since then, it is imperative that we HONOR their loss and sacrifice by facing up to the challenge we fear or are uncomfortable with. To HONOR them and their sacrifice may require courage on our part to support justice and liberty.
Duty: something that one is expected or required to do by moral or legal obligation. I’d say that every American has a duty to perform courageously and with honor in the pursuit of justice and liberty. If we don’t then we aren’t living up to the American ideal as it was set by the founding fathers. It is my belief that we – all Americans – have a moral obligation to value our country as much as those great men did.
Service: the performance of duties; the duty or work of public servants. Most of the time when we see the term “public servants” we think of police officers, firemen, etc. Truth be told, every American citizen can be a public servant. Uncounted volunteers across our nation serve the public interest by performing duties and services for which they never receive payment; they never get anything more than the occasional “thank you” and that warm feeling inside that comes from doing something you know to be right. In that vein, we can all be public servants, and it is my belief that such service is the duty of every American. Remembering the words of JFK, how many Americans today ask what they can do for their country instead of asking what their country can do (or has done) for them? In the course of our daily life we should be seeking ways to support our community; our state and our country. National service should be something we all strive to include in our lives. If our founding fathers hadn’t provided the services that they each did, America would certainly be a different place today.
Loyalty: faithfulness to commitments or obligations. I submit to you that each of us – every American citizen – has an obligation to these United States. We are obligated to think of the needs of our country and all who legally populate it. We are obligated to find a place in our lives to support our nation through service. We are obligated to fulfill our duty with courage and honor, to support justice and liberty and, in doing so, honor those men and women who sacrificed so much to give us all the opportunities we have today.
THAT was what I ended up trying to explain to my son. THAT is what I wanted him to carry away from the conversation and what I try to teach him on a daily basis. THAT is a synopsis of what I believe every American should use to define him (or her) self each day. To do less is simply un-American.