Editor's note: The following column is the fourth in an eight-part series about "What's right with America" that will appear in the pages of the Roundup through July 4. The author, Stan Brown, is a local historian, a columnist for The Rim Review and a retired minister. This series reflects his take on the implications of freedom in America.
What's right about America? Freedom is right about America, the freedom to serve the common welfare.
A friend discussed with me his dilemma as a member of a school board. They had debated the issue of whether to open their meetings with prayer, and he held the deciding vote.
The question is a big one. How does prayer in public settings affect the separation of church and state? In this case, a couple of the school board members were zealous to use prayer to promote their particular brand of faith.
The thing that thrilled me about his dilemma was this: here is a man who gives hours and hours of his time, puts up with controversy to serve his community and gets no pay for it. He even gave up his local sales territory with a supply company because it would have been a conflict of interest.
Why does he do it? Because we have a concept built into the foundation of our American system called "the common welfare." It is a phrase that means we join ranks with others, even when we have little else in common, and work hard for the best interests of the community at large. Individually we may be outvoted at the polls. I can't tell you how shocked I am at almost every election to find I am not in the majority. After all, I know I am right. But there is a greater right in America than our individual opinions. We express democracy in America not by using our freedom to "do our own thing," but to serve the common welfare.
In America, this expresses itself most evidently in volunteerism. Previous census reports tell us that one fourth of the American population 13 years of age and older are volunteers in ways they believe contribute to the wellbeing of the general society. Nowhere in the world is the spirit of volunteerism higher than in the USA. Minutemen in the colonies, barn-raising parties on the prairies, volunteer fire departments, the Peace Corps, hospital auxiliaries, Habitat for Humanity, shelters, churches and even political parties all show that we believe our efforts can right wrongs.
Someone is always rising up in our midst to say, "Here's how to solve a problem." We organize on the spot for the common good. We fight against crime or poverty or disease. We start support groups, we circulate petitions or march in demonstrations. We register to vote, we give our money to charity and taxes.
What's right about America? The freedom to serve the common welfare, and that common welfare includes all shades, shapes and sounds of cultures. In America, we have the freedom to enjoy a stewpot of cultures.
For awhile in our history we liked to think of America as a melting pot, where everyone mixed together into a new culture called the American way. Mark Twain understood it more clearly when he wrote that the only common feature of the American character he could discover was a fondness for ice water. In others words, none of us are alike.
One of my sons-in-law is Mexican-American. His elegant bronze skin and features are those of the Aztec, and several of my grandchildren have taken on his beautiful brown color. I say to him, tongue in cheek, "Please recover your Mexican culture before it is too late. After all, part of that tradition is to honor the parents. Mexican children take care of their parents in their old age. I don't want to miss out on that!"
We laugh together, but I am half-serious.
Most Americans cannot hide their particular heritage. I haven't joined any Scottish associations, but for some reason the bagpipes give me a thrill. And if you get to know me very well, you will sooner or later see the sharp Anglo-Saxon edge showing.
We are not a melting pot. We are a stew pot, all of us in it together, yet each carrot and piece of meat, onion and potato keeps its identity and can be picked out of the rest. Even today, "the tired ... poor ... huddled masses yearning to breathe free" come to these shores. We welcome "the homeless, tempest tossed" because our people before us were like them. Churches and families and civic organizations sponsor refugees fleeing persecution in other lands. Walt Whitman said that America was "not merely a nation, but a teeming nation of nations."
Such a stew-pot creates many prejudices, and we have to suppress that in ourselves. Yet how blessed we are to rally for the common good and enjoy each other's differences in this stewpot. Every race and culture in America has a contribution for the rest of us, and out of each come great leaders and innovators, unique foods and music, fascinating art and customs, and a special beauty that adds to the daily life of America. We are enriched by this diversity. What a privilege to live in a land where the good things of Earth's many cultures come to bless our lives.
The freedom to serve the common welfare while we enjoy a stewpot of cultures is what is right about America.