Friday, June 6, 2008

What "American" Means: Taking Responsibility for Our Most Precious Moral Resource

In light of the present state of American politics, I give you this, an essay I wrote six months ago for a job I applied for at a private school:

Speaking to the commitment required of a democratic citizenry, Wendell Berry writes of a young man who conscientiously refused to follow authorities to war in Vietnam and found himself in jail “because he [could] not see any difference between public morality and private morality,” between simply believing or professing the principles of democracy and living them. Those who have taken such stands, in Berry’s words, “are among the most precious moral resources of our country. Because they have not only believed in our highest ideals, but have acted as they believed, the world is whole before them, and they are whole before the world.”[1] The responsibility to invest in this resource rests at the very heart of what America means and what it means to be American. Only when we work to build future generations around the conscience of America’s past can America’s present generations live in hope.

This weight of this stewardship distilled upon me while walking through the National Archives Building Rotunda at Washington, D.C. Surrounded by the Charters of Freedom and the fading murals of those who signed the Charters, I’d knelt before each case, our three-year-old daughter on one knee, and considered our Founding Fathers’ words: With their vision toward future generations, they’d written of holding fast to self-evident truths, of coming together in word and deed to form a more perfect Union, of checking institutionalized authority in order to prevent misconstruction or abuse of the Constitution’s powers. Looking at our daughter and her ten-month-old sister, I saw the rising nation’s hope reflected in their innocence.

Just over a year later, I listened as our oldest pledged allegiance to the American flag from the backseat of the car, giving an impromptu recital of what she’d been learning at preschool. As I’d glanced through the rearview mirror, she met my gaze with quiet, four-year-old confidence, knowing—without really knowing—that what she had said meant something, if only to her parents.

I anticipate the day when she reflects with her life the meaning conveyed in these foundational texts, when, compelled by principle and by conscience to honor the independence of others, she reaches out with courage and compassion to unite them against injustice and in defense of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. And now I look at her and her sisters with a deepened awareness—offset with more than a little inadequacy—that part of my responsibility as a parent and a patriot is to infuse these principles into their developing moral character. Indeed, I’ve become convinced that the ability to take such responsibility for the lives and liberty of ourselves and others, even when faced with opposition (from within or from without), is the fertile ground within which America sows her independence and her intergenerational strength.

[1] “Some Thoughts on Citizenship and Conscience in Honor of Don Pratt.” The Long-Legged House. Washington, DC: Shoemaker and Hoard, 2004. 80-1.