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PROFESSOR OF RELIGIOUS STUDIES
UNIVERSITY OF COLORADO AT BOULDER
We Aim to Advance
Nation's High Ideals
On Memorial Day, I think back to my earliest memory of
war: news reports of American POWS, and
coffins, returning from North Korea
in 1953. For half a century now, I’ve
seen young men and women in uniform go off to risk the ultimate sacrifice in
service to our country. For half a
century, I’ve been thinking about what it means to serve our country.
When I was a child, it seemed simple enough. Serving our country meant doing whatever our
elected leaders deemed
necessary. Some Americans
still believe this. But after Vietnam,
Watergate, and a hundred lesser blows to our confidence in our leaders, that
definition just won’t do for most of us.
Most Americans now hold a more complex definition of
service to country. They assume that the
policies of the U.S.
government are generally humane and well-intentioned. Normally, we should all serve our country by
supporting its policies. However, there
are exceptions. When we see our
government acting wrongly, we should resist.
In a democracy, criticism of the government is also a way to serve the
country. There is nothing patriotic
about passive acquiescence.
Behind this common view lies an often-unspoken
assumption that the fundamental goals of America
are humane and well-intentioned. If so,
then we should assume that the policies crafted to pursue our aims are
generally right and good. Serving the
country means giving it the benefit of the doubt, serving its policies until we
have good reason to believe they are wrong.
And when we do find them wrong, we should object to the policies, but
not the larger goals.
The clearest example in recent memory was the Vietnam war. A large majority
of our people came to disagree with the policy.
But most saw it as an aberration, a mistaken way to pursue the basic
aims of the nation. Only a few saw it as
evidence that those basic aims were themselves mistaken.
What about those few, today, who are not so confident
about our fundamental goals? They know
how often U.S.
policies aim to promote U.S.
economic interests. They know how wealth
is distributed in this country: as the
pie grows, the upper 5% or so get an increasingly larger share of it. So they conclude that promoting U.S.
interests really means promoting the interests of the upper 5%. “Serving your country” too often means
serving the rich.
Do these skeptics not want to serve their
country? Are they simply
anti-Americans? It depends. Some have indeed given up on the possibility
playing a positive role in the world.
They see the country having sold its soul for greed.
The majority, though, are not so cynical. They want to serve our country, but in a
different way. They know that the United
States was the first nation built on the
idea that “all men are created equal.”
They devote their lives to that same vision. They merely want to update it (all “people”
are created equal) and put it into practice.
They see in Jefferson’s great words the origins
of the UN’s Declaration of Human Rights, which includes an equal right to basic
needs like food, shelter, health care, and education. When they see our own nation acting to
restrict those rights, they protest—precisely because they are Americans,
intent on serving our national ideals.
This group’s critique of U.S.
policies, no matter how harsh and sweeping, is a profound service to the
nation. They remind us that we may be
naïve to trust in the goodness of our leaders’ most basic aims. They call us to read and study widely, then
to exercise our own judgment, not only about specific policies,
but also about fundamental goals and purposes.
They tell us there is nothing patriotic about passive acquiescence on
questions of aims as well as policies.
In a democracy, citizenship means open discussion of everything,
including the most basic question: Has
our nation gone astray from its highest ideals and most noble purposes?
Many of our citizens find this question disturbing,
even frightening. It calls into doubt
the foundation of their lives as Americans.
To refute the critics with reasoned arguments would imply that their
critique might have some legitimacy. So
the self-proclaimed “good Americans” wave away the whole question by calling
the critics “anti-Americans,” “the hate-America crowd.”
Does this dismissive attitude serve our country? It smoothes the path toward
U.S. political and economic power. It makes life mentally and emotionally easier
for the average American. But is that
really the service America
needs today? Or do we need to talk openly
and respectfully about our most basic national goals as well as the specific
policies we follow to pursue those goals?
Perhaps those are the questions all of us should be discussing this
Memorial Day—at least all of us who want to serve our country.