Editor's note: The following column is the first 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.
by Stan Brown
special to the roundup
There are several pilgrimages everyone needs to take in a lifetime. One is to the place you were born, and another would be to travel to the nation where your ancestors originated.
For Christians, a pilgrimage to the Holy Land is a must, for Muslims a pilgrimage to Mecca. But there is another pilgrimage every American needs to take. That is to Washington, D.C., our nation's capitol.
My wife, Ruth, and I walked from the subway to the Capitol building on a glorious spring day, and emotions began to well up within me even though I had been to that city once several years before. I remembered again that I am incurably patriotic. As we wandered here and there, every statue, every building and monument, every quotation cut in marble, every flag catching the morning light was a symbol of an ideal and the life of freedom we enjoy.
American history has had its dark days, days when thoughts of patriotism were scarce. As its citizens, we know that all too well. But our pilgrimage to the nation's capitol helped us realize again what is good about America.
"What's right about America?"
I asked this at the end of each day during our trip, and immediately my mind blazed with the word freedom. Freedom is right about America. But that is a big word. What does it mean? Freedom of speech and religion come to mind, but there are more subtle ways to answer the question. I began to list the things experienced in my lifetime. For example, the freedom to be an idealist.
We walked into the National Archives building and were part of a long line filing past cases containing original copies of the Declaration of Independence, The Constitution and The Bill of Rights. People of every skin color and dress code imaginable occupied the line.
I was reminded of TV coverage showing unending lines filing past the dead body of some notable who lay in state. Except, these were not dead bodies but living ideals. Each night the cases with their precious cargo were lowered slowly into deep vaults for safe keeping. Just seeing these American papers, and the homage being paid them by countless citizens, made me hold my head higher and renewed my desire to live out the ideals they contained.
In America we have the freedom to be idealists, and to hold our heads high with hope for a better tomorrow.
It happened every Decoration Day when I was growing up. That is what we called Memorial Day, for we decorated the graves of fallen soldiers, and we decorated our bicycles. Red, white and blue bunting entwined the spokes, and streamers flew from the handlebars. These were our tickets of admission to ride in the parade down the main street of our town.
Some years I marched the whole way as a Cub Scout, then as a Boy Scout. It felt good to wear a uniform and end up at the park, where the soldiers fired their guns and speeches were made. There, we were reminded of the American dream, for the speaker was like a preacher describing the Promised Land. We could have shouted "Hallelujah!"
We Americans are pushovers for idealism, and the more old fashioned the better. The danger is that patriotism tends to oversimplify issues. It is so easy for our patriotism to become the quick and unthinking answer to difficult issues. Without realizing it, we slip into the devastating philosophy of "my country right or wrong," and thoughtlessly allow Uncle Sam to take the place of God. Idealism in America is more than a flag-waving parade.
The freedom to be idealistic is right about America, but we need to keep our parade on the right course. That course is clearly charted in those three documents we viewed at the National Archives. Every American child needs to be profoundly exposed to them throughout the years of public schooling. The courage, the purity, and sacrifice symbolized by the colors of our flag; the acknowledgment of God's supreme authority; the equality for all persons affirmed by our founding fathers, all constitute the charter of our common life in America. They are castles in the air, magnificent ideals, until we put the foundations of our daily actions underneath them.
In Arlington Cemetery we stood at the grave of President John F. Kennedy and watched its eternal flame ripple with the breeze. My mind went back to July 20, 1969, when the Apollo II landed on the moon. Kennedy had said earlier we would land a man on the moon before the decade was over, and that we did. Neil Armstrong held us in the palm of his hand as we watched him step down the ladder of the spacecraft, onto the moon's surface. We held our heads high that day. The tragedies of assassinations and Vietnam faded while we began to affirm that if America could put a man on the moon, there was nothing America could not do.
Our pioneering spirits stirred those days as we looked at the moon from Earth, imagining we could see our men there. More significantly, we began to look at our Earth from the moon through the camera eyes of Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin. We saw ourselves this blue agate so beautiful, so fragile, hung like a Christmas ornament in space. If ever our nationalism was put into perspective, it was then. We could see that we really were "one world." We began to understand humankind as one family, and that we can only cling to this delicate life we share if we behave as one people. The ideals given to us by our founding fathers are not only for America, they are for every nation.
We turned from JFK's grave that day, to pause and read his quotations cut deep in marble around the area. "In the long history of the world," he said, "only a few generations have been granted the role of defending freedom in its hour of maximum danger. I do not shrink from this responsibility. I welcome it."
What's right about America? Freedom is right about America, the freedom to be idealists.