On the morning of Independence Day, Rep. Cori Bush (D-MO) tweeted, “When they say that the 4th of July is about American freedom, remember this: the freedom they’re referring to is for white people. This land is stolen land and Black people still aren’t free.” Sen. Ted Cruz responded forcefully, tweeting that Bush was telling, “Hateful, divisive lies.” He asserted, “The Left hates America. Believe them when they tell you this.”
It is tempting to write off a quick Twitter exchange between two politicians who are hungry for the spotlight, but these two tweets get to the heart of a debate engulfing American life right now – should we celebrate America? Many believe we should celebrate America with no mention of slavery, Chinese internment, the Trail of Tears, or police brutality. Others believe that the presence of these issues means America should not be celebrated at all.
This is the crux of the debate over the teaching of Critical Race Theory in public schools. Some want to major on America’s sins and portray some Americans as part of a permanent oppressor class. This is not a healthy way to help people confront inequities in American life. Others want to run in a different direction and teach a purely celebratory version of American History. This approach could best be summarized by a conversation I had with someone who said, “Every time we teach about slavery and Jim Crow, we put another log on the fire. If we want the fire to go out, we stop talking about it.” Teaching American History while ignoring the role of slavery and Jim Crow means that we stop making progress on our flaws.
I think the answer to this conundrum is to look at the United States as an unfinished project. There are resources in America’s founding documents that provide a roadmap for the course that we should take from here. They help us diagnose America’s shortcomings in light of our founding intentions and provide remedies for addressing them in keeping with our founding ideals.
The United States of America is both an idea and an experiment. The nation’s founders enshrined the idea of America in the Declaration of Independence. “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness.” The idea that all people are created equal and have the right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness was unique on the world stage in 1776. The beautiful idea our founding document contains says that every person from every walk of life has natural rights and that they all have the equal right to have these rights protected.
However, the United States of America has not always lived up to the beautiful sentiment expressed in her founding documents. That many Americans owned slaves, including some of the men who signed the Declaration of Independence, went against the ideals that we express. The Trail of Tears, Jim Crow laws, Japanese internment, and a host of other policies have treated people like they are less than what the Declaration says they are. The United States has often failed to live up to its self-evident truths.
Yet, in many ways, the American story is the tale of a nation learning to be what it says it is. In this way, the words of the Declaration of Independence become the goal for which we are striving. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. expressed this sentiment when he proclaimed, “All we say to America is, ‘Be true to what you said on paper.’” President Lincoln quoted the Declaration in the Gettysburg Address and called for a “new birth of freedom.” He had already granted this new birth of freedom when he issued the Emancipation Proclamation before seeing it etched into the Constitution with the ratification of the Thirteenth Amendment, which banned slavery.
Sometimes the United States has crawled in its progress towards treating all people like they are created equal, but still, there has been progress – the Fourteenth Amendment, the Fifteenth Amendment, Brown v Board of Education, and the Civil Rights Act all stand as monuments to the progress we have made. We still have further to go in reaching the ideal of treating all as if they have been created equal, but the remedy lies in reminding people what America is supposed to be.
The views expressed in this commentary do not necessarily reflect those of Christian Headlines.
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Scott Slayton writes at “One Degree to Another.”