May 23, 2014

Cornucopia / Cynthia Dewes

What does it mean to be an American? Freedom—and so much more

Cynthia DewesWe live in a country where some people feel free to stomp on their national flag—or even burn it. And we also live in a country where some people believe they have the right, if not the duty, to censor others’ public statements about religion, race, economic status, or whatever.

We live in a country in which some states use capital punishment as a deterrent to crime, while others use psychological justifications to explain away crime. Some believe that the penalty for mass murders like the bombing of the Boston Marathon should be death, while others want resources spent on improving mental health instead.

Some of us think we should outlaw the sale of large soft drinks for public health reasons. Others think we should be free to eat and drink anything vendors can dream up—including deep-fried Twinkies—because personal health is nobody else’s business. Some people want the use of marijuana and other drugs legalized across the board. Others fight to make this not only illegal, but resulting in jail time or worse.

Some Americans interpret the “pursuit of happiness” promised by the U.S. Constitution as a guarantee of absolute satisfaction in whatever we want. Some people believe it is patriotic to claim “it’s my country, right or wrong.” Others think patriotism is an outdated notion and that they are free to criticize and even vilify this nation.

So with all these and many more polarized ideas of what it means to be an American, where does the truth lie? What does freedom entail? How are we different from any other country? And if we are, what does that mean?

Maybe we should go back to the Founders who established a Constitution outlining what it is to be an American citizen. We should seek the original intent of their words, without adding current political thought or cultural prejudice. And that’s not easy, considering we’ve been at it for more than 200 years.

The Founders were clever enough to write the Constitution’s language in such a way that it is ambiguous but at the same time precise. They couldn’t anticipate what changes would occur over time, so they tried to make the intent clear without adding any details.

They followed the idea that the role of government is to do for individuals what they cannot do for themselves. Therefore the government can wage war, levy taxes, offer protection or whatever it takes to support the common good, It is to represent and serve the people, not the other way around.

Furthermore, the Founders recognized that we are a nation “under God,” with respect for individual beliefs as long as they also support the common good. They included the Christian idea of free will, as well as its responsibilities. Therefore, Americans are free to speak and worship as they please, own property, etc., and they have a right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.

Note that “right to life” does not include a right to privacy. “Right to liberty” does not mean “right to practice license,” and “pursuit of happiness” does not mean its certainty. No, free will involves personal responsibility to maintain our freedom.

Memorial Day is our annual opportunity to thank those who’ve served their country in saving the rights laid down by the Founders. But it’s also a good time to reflect on what freedom means to us, what our responsibilities are in furthering it, and how we can continue the vision of the Founding Fathers.

God bless America.

(Cynthia Dewes, a member of St. Paul the Apostle Parish in Greencastle, is a regular columnist for The Criterion.)

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