A New Series. America has not been this dangerously divided in many years, and the myths that in the past have held us together and shaped our identity as a people are no longer working. Instead, we have become an angry country where, in the words of W.B. Yeats, “everywhere the ceremony of innocence is drowned” and our public discourse is passionate, poisoned and dangerously illiterate.
It seems a good time to try to rebuild a national myth – or at least come up with a mission statement – that could help unify us. It's not a new idea: Here are four examples from our history:
- In 1630 John Winthrop admonished his Puritan followers that “we must consider that we shall be as a city upon a hill. The eyes of all people are upon us, . . . we must be knit together, in this work, as one man.”
- A century and a half later, the framers looked out over a far different America and wrote these words: “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.”
- At Gettysburg, Abraham Lincoln pointed to “the great task remaining before us – that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom – and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.”
- And a century later, Martin Luther King, Jr., said beneath Lincoln’s monument: “When we let [freedom] ring from every village and every hamlet, from every state and every city, we will be able to speed up that day when all of God's children, black men and white men, Jews and Gentiles, Protestants and Catholics, will be able to join hands and sing in the words of the old Negro spiritual: Free at last! Free at last! Thank God Almighty, we are free at last!”
Each of these statements builds on the ones that came before, and each came as the community faced a time of crisis and great fear. As I will try to show in my next post, each sought to reiterate the essence of the American experience – of “American exceptionalism,” if you will – and, more importantly, to expand the definition of our American community to include those who had been left out.
In these days of the great unraveling, we need to restate who we are as a people and build a more inclusive community.