July 4 is a good time to reflect on what America means to us.
We have been blessed with rights such as freedom of worship, to speak one’s mind, to have a free press and so on. The recent murders in a newsroom in Annapolis, Md., challenge, once again, the ideal of what America is supposed to represent, which is an inherent respect for each other’s God-ordained rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.
Religion is supposed to represent a mediating influence upon the body politic. Yet these days anger and fear seem to hold sway. But America is about hope and finding the best in ourselves.
The title of historian Jon Meachem’s book “The Soul of America: The Battle for our Better Angels,” refers to a speech that President Abraham Lincoln delivered during his first Inaugural address in 1861.
"We are not enemies but friends ...The mystic chords of memory ... will yet swell the chorus of the Union, when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.”
Throughout our nation's past, we have fought the perennial battle, according to Meachem, between fear and hope and somehow we have prevailed. We have both triumphed and survived our darkest moments. America is about the search for “the better angels of our nature.” Meachem takes the reader on a tour of the most difficult times our nation has faced, from the Civil War through World War I, the rise of the Ku Klux Klan, World War II, McCarthyism and, finally, down to the Civil Rights struggle.
The book is necessary reading for all Americans. It provides a perspective that through periods of darkness, great leaders and great citizens were able to find the light.
Meachem challenges Americans to remember their better angels when he quotes the historian Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr., who wrote about the uniqueness of our nation’s calling.
“The genius of America lies in its capacity to forge a single nation from peoples from remarkably diverse racial, religious and ethnic origins. The American creed envisages a nation composed of individuals making their own choices and accountable to themselves, not a nation based upon inviolable ethnic communities. … It is what all Americans should learn, because it is what binds all Americans together.”
Religion can play a significant role in reinforcing those values. Religion has a vested interest in promoting the fundamental pillars of the secular faith of this country. This goes beyond any one issue that currently captures our attention in the 24-hour news cycle. Religion is supposed to be about creating sacred communities that worship and search for the noblest human character and oppose any action that diminishes human dignity or freedom. The religious community should stand up for the teachings of God to send the nation a message that this particular bond of citizenry is sacred.
We know that great ideological and political battles will continue in America. They have in the past and are doing so now and will continue to rage on in the future. Debate is healthy for our democracy.
The most important thing about America is that if we don't like a law or a political party, we can go to the voting booth and elect someone else. The challenge is not to forget that we are a people and we can either rescue ourselves from demagoguery or self destruct if we aren’t careful about how we treat each other.
The religious community cannot hide in a cocoon of neutrality and cover its eyes to social injustice. This principle should transcend partisan politics. One can advocate for a political policy that is contrary to the majority and still hold dear one’s love of country and faith in God.
Moreover, the religious community must not only be the go-to source of comfort after a tragedy such as Annapolis or the school shootings in Parkland, Fla., or the church massacre in Charleston. The religions of this nation are in a position to make a difference by entering the battle of values and advocating, for example, for compromise in politics, respectful speech and listening to those we disagree with before we attack.
Religion should be the one force in our democracy that models civility.
America needs a great infusion of civility in our public discourse. The battle for civility is a battle for the soul of our nation, and it is a struggle worth fighting for today now more than ever.
Meachem concluded his book by saying, “There is, in fact, no struggle more important, and none nobler, than the one we wage in the service of those better angels who, however besieged, are always ready for battle.”
So let the lights from the holiday fireworks this Fourth of July not only mesmerize us, but lead us to see an often illusive inner light that reflects the best side of the American spirit.