In the 1990s, Christians in the United States revived the phrase “What would Jesus do?” The question encourages people of faith to conduct internal audits of whether they are living up to the ideals Jesus taught.
In the secular world, we in the United States should be asking, “What would the Founders do?” Are we the country they envisioned in the Declaration of Independence, where all men are created equal and all are endowed with the absolute rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness?
A national debate about patriotism has been reignited by the few minutes that Colin Kaepernick spent on one knee while the Star-Spangled Banner was played before a football game. The controversy will be worthwhile if it results in an honest audit of whether we in the United States are fulfilling, or at least working hard to fulfill, the hopes of the Founding Fathers. A lot has changed since 1776, of course, but we’re talking here about timeless ideals.
In his farewell address to the nation, President Ronald Reagan described his vision for America as a shining city on a hill, “a tall proud city built on rocks stronger than oceans, wind swept, God blessed, and teeming with people of all kinds living in harmony and peace ― a city with free ports that hummed with commerce and creativity, and if there had to be city walls, the walls had doors, and the doors were open to anyone with the will and the heart to get here.” Are we there yet, or have we stalled?
We know what patriotism is. It’s the love of and allegiance to one’s nation. Does a nation deserve allegiance when it tolerates biases, racism, misogyny, boneheaded ideological rigidity, inequality of opportunity, wealth-hoarding and deflated dreams, like the conditions Americans are experiencing today? Should we care that the people of the world do not see us as a shining city right now? What they see from our leaders in Washington is not a model of democratic governance. They see a circus in a swamp.
So, who is a patriot? The American who says love it or leave it? Or the American who says love it but fix it?
In my opinion, true patriotism is far more demanding than standing for the National Anthem or saluting the flag. It is the commitment to work relentlessly to achieve the ideals contained in the Constitution, the Bill of Rights and the Declaration of Independence. In other words, it is active devotion to what America can and should be.
We certainly should love our flawed nation, but it should be tough love. That includes protests that tell us when we are off course. At times, the reminder must be rude and shocking to wake us up from complacency. Thomas Jefferson agreed. He wrote in 1787 that “a little rebellion now and then is a good thing.” He asked, “What country can preserve its liberties if their rulers are not warned from time to time that their people preserve the spirit of resistance?”
This is one of those times. An honest gut check tells us that racism, sexism and tribalism still exist here, in spite of the belief that all men are created equal. The wall that Donald Trump wants to build does not include a door, as President Reagan hoped. “Anyone with the will and heart to get here” is not welcome any more.
We have a persistent and growing gap among our people not only in income, but also in wealth and opportunity. A minute percentage of us hold disproportionate wealth, while millions of Americans struggle to find meaningful work and fair wages. In fact, we rank next to last in the world on net income and equality. Nevertheless, labor unions are being dismantled to deprive workers of their power to prevent corporate abuse.
Veterans appear to be split on whether failing to stand for the Anthem is an insult to their service. The real insults are contained in the historic record, which shows that past presidents have sent men and women to die in wars declared on false pretenses, as in Iraq, and have allowed American soldiers to continue dying even after our government knew the war was futile, as in Vietnam. Our current president, who has never served in or suffered the misery of war, carelessly tweets macho insults to other countries, threatens to invade them, and engages in brinksmanship with a foreign despot who would love to demonstrate his brand new nuclear weapons on the mainland of the United States. The result of the president’s oversized ego could be millions of dead North and South Koreans, millions of deaths in the United States, and the possibility that other nuclear powers would engage.
Congress is ruled by politicians motivated not by what’s good for the country, but by the desire for partisan dominance. Legislation that deeply affects the health and lives of the American people, including their ability to access doctors and medicines, has been written twice now behind closed doors, without public hearings and without knowing how and how many Americans the legislation would affect.
Back in the White House, the president is systematically deconstructing generations of laws and rules on environmental stewardship. For the most ridiculous reason, he denies that climate change is real, even while millions of Americans have just suffered incalculable emotional trauma and physical losses by weather disasters with a ferocity we have never seen before.
One of our most fundamental rights – the vote ― is compromised by voter suppression, gerrymandering, an outdated electoral college system, and the unlimited influence of money in elections. We have allowed our country to become a plutocracy rather than a democracy.
Real patriots do not accept this. They are not sheep, robots or sycophants. They work and vote and demonstrate if they must to call attention to these deficiencies.
Some of us despair that in our incivility and rigid ideologies today, we Americans have strayed so far from the road to the shining city on the hill that we may not find our way back. Some elements of society do not want us to find the road again because they profit from the status quo. But then we see the outpouring of generosity and empathy that swells like a storm surge after disasters like Harvey and Irma, and we know the nation’s heart is still beating. We are a fundamentally good people. We know that we can put aside our differences when others need us. We have done it again and again. Do we need a disaster to unite us, or can we unite around the ideals on which all this began?
So, what would the Founders do? They would admonish us for tolerating the conditions that are so contrary to the republic they created. They would tell us to respect nonviolent protest, even when we don’t like how it’s done. They would urge us to rise up peacefully but forcefully against injustice, inequality and corruption.
They would tell us that real patriots do not settle for anything less.