The meaning of America


A famous historian once said that if Washington had been resurrected in Lincoln’s time, he would not have fund it very different from his own day. Clothing styles might have changed a little; some of the laws and customs might be new, but in the main, there would be no real divergence of culture and way of life. But if Washington or Lincoln were resurrected in our day and placed in our culture, either one would probably collapse from sheer inability to keep up with us.

America is breeding a hearty people; we must he hearty to keep up with this amazing pace.


A nd there there are benedicts to be gained by this speed: mass production, greater volume of goods at cheaper prices, more things in less time, and the world still shrinks in size . Long-distance telephones cut space into seconds. We move around faster and can have breakfast in London, lunch in New York, and dinner in San Fran -cisco. Soon we shall beat the sun around the earth and arrive at our destination a few hours prior to having taken off. . Highways are much better and faster with fewer turns, and those that must be there are banked gently so as to permit sustained maximum speeds. Manufacturers vie with one another to produce a car with greater horsepower so as to permit quicker starts and help the driver achieve the dubious distinction of being first to reach the next red light. All of this may be considered good and often is beneficial.


B ut there are negative considerations associated with all of this. There tends to be a loss of individuality, a transference of mass—production thinking associated with and related to things, to material objects, into a relationship between man and man. Vanishing is the uniqueness of the individual. Vanishing is the right to be different, the right to be yourself. Equality is being replaced by “sameness.” We are tempted to adhere to contentment and conventionality; to do the right thing rather than the right.

We forget that the growth of our culture and society has come about through the pooling of ideas of independent people, people who think differently, who come from different backgrounds and are willing to share, being capable of giving and receiving on an equal level. America today is the product of its immigrants, and a product that is the envy of the world. America is far more than a continent bounded by two oceans. It is more than the pride of military power, glory in war, or success and victory. It means more than vast expanses of farms, of great factories or mines, magnificent cities, or millions of automobiles, radios, and TVs. America is the intan -gible we cannot describe.


It is a soul.

The soul of a free man, the spirit of a free thought.

The dream of an alert mind.

The simple and honest dignity of a human being.

The respect for the feelings, thoughts, and concerns of a fellow citizen,


This is the essence of the soul of democracy: c pluribus unum, “out of many one,” a concept that affords an extraordinarily vital and flexible unity consisting in the teamwork of the different and embodied in their mutual respect and acceptance.


One nation composed of individuals.

Individuals in religion and beliefs.

A host of people trusting one another, without anxiety, fear, and insecurity.

A trust based on knowledge and understanding.

A life removed from hate and fear, the causes of cultural and national rot and decay.


An inclusive brotherhood that has come to he known as cultural pluralism, which recognizes equality of nationalities, races, and religions as an essential of full human liberty and true democracy. Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes said: “If there is any principle of the constitution that more imperatively calls for attachment than any other, it is the principle of free thought.....not free thought for those who agree with us, but freedom for the thoughts we do not share.”

Rather than being separated by individuality and independence, men are united in full liberty. For the genius of each man’s independence is secure for that man only as it is secure for all other men. Each must have the right to think as an individual and freely. To disregard that vision of unity through individual freedom is to destroy the body and soul of democracy . Our late President John F. Kennedy said: “An open society grows or withers according to the power of its ideas and to the vitality of its interior dialogue. If ever the United States should reach a point where the clash of ideas comes to an end, where debate disappears, where everybody agrees with everybody else on everything, then we are finished as a nation ... and the ideal of freedom, to which our nation has been dedicated since the time of Washington and Adams, Jefferson and Hamilton, perishes.”

Political freedom is of little worth except as it springs from, expresses, and invigorates spiritual freedom. Compulsive uniformity is tyrannical in that it breaks and tames the spirits, sinks man in his own eyes, takes away vigor of thought and action, substitutes an outward rule for a conscience, and makes man abject, cowardly, a parasite, and a cringing slave, It wars with the soul and thus wars with God. Where all think alike, no one thinks very much.

I have heard that there is a young man in San Francisco who marches in any picket line, no matter what the cause. He carries a big placard that reads simply, “Shame!” “I figure that covers anything,” he explains, “and it gives me a feeling of belonging.” In this day of conformity too many Americans have rewritten the ancient motto as “I came, I saw, I concurred.”

Rather than to employ the melting-pot concept, America is obliged to preserve the good in each tradition and help to develop the individual to the best of which he is capable. In differentiation, not in uniformity, lies the path of progress. Each religious sect, each ethnic group, is a fellowship with its own group individuality, orch-estrating itself into the symphonic concert of American democracy, playing its part in nourishing the spirit of our land, enriching the national achievement by its unique contribution.

The makers of the Constitution undertook to secure conditions favorable to the pur-suit of happiness. They recognized the significance of man’s spiritual nature, of his feelings, and of his intellect. They knew that only a part of the pain, pleasure, and satisfactions of life ought to be found in material things. They sought to protect Americans in their beliefs, their thoughts, their emotions and sensations. They con-ferred upon the American citizen the right to

of rights and the right most valued by civilized mail. They recognized, as do we, that just as gold and silver to be made more durable and practical must be mixed with alloys, so, too, must a nation, if it is to prosper and reach its visualized goals and aspirations, be a composite of many peoples, each contributing its peculiar and unique share to the common good.

But recognition of individuality is not enough. To tolerate is not enough. Goethe has said: “To tolerate is to insult . Tolerance must only be a preparatory sentiment to open the way to mutual acceptance. True liberalism is recognition and under-standing.” To tolerate another is but a tacit declaration of powerlessness to elim-inate or destroy the object of tolerance. It is not tolerance that is asked of us through our religious heritage, but rather that, with the psalmist, we “judge ... the people with equity.”

The irony, the paradox, of these last years is that in a totalitarian state such as old Russia, the individual is crushed by the force of the state. In our free society the individual often freely sells his individuality for a mess of acceptance by the multitude.

Being an individual is not easy. It involves freedom, and man is often afraid of freedom. By being a part of a crowd, man justifies much that his personal conscience would not permit. He goes along with the mob. By so doing he is relieved of his personal responsibility, for what the majority says must be right. It offers rationalization and security that often eliminate thought and reason. Although Moses commanded the children of Israel, “Thou shalt not follow a multitude to do evil” (Ex. 23:2), the rule today seems to be “Be what others expect and want you to be!”

There is a beautiful story in Jewish tradition that tells of a Rabbi Joshua who was on his deathbed. As he lay there his disciples noticed tears furrowing his cheeks, and asked him why. Was he afraid of death? Was he afraid of what he would meet when lie stood before the throne on high? “No,” said Rabbi Joshua, he was afraid that when he did get to heaven he would not be asked, “Why were you not like Moses,” but “Why were you not like Rabbi Joshua?”

This trend toward conformity on every level of our society violates a basic principle of almost every ethical religious group—the sacredness of independence. Conform-ity is a denial of that uniqueness. To follow the multitude, to disregard a single person or particular group in favor of the mass, is degrading to the very best in man. A religious person does not sell his soul for success and popularity, nor does he give away that soul to any party, club, or movement just for the sake of being on the inside.

It is Psalm 133 that teaches us: “Behold, how good and how pleasant it is for brethren to dwell together in unity!” (verse 1). And we should add, while retaining their own characteristic individuality (uniqueness) and sharing their personal interests as equals and freely.

This has been the American credo—the blueprint for perspective and action on the part of all thinking Americans. The inspiration for life and thought. Unity coupled with individuality . Equality joined to uniqueness. Union recognizing personality. Nation dedicated to citizenry.

With the truths of our heritage firmly implanted in our hearts, let us serve our fellow men with gladness, doing justice, loving mercy, and walking humbly with God in the path of our daily lives. Thus we shall build an America strong in its own soul, and able to face the world’s tyranny in the combined strength of its minorities.


LIBERTY Magazine

November - December 2005

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