The United States of America is the greatest nation on Earth — but between certain primaries and the Fourth of July, you might not know it. The trend in which American exceptionalism, and America herself, have both been derided, mocked and downplayed has only grown stronger in the past two decades.
Flaws, faults and the mistakes of the past have been relentlessly thrown down by certain candidates, celebrities, officeholders and even average citizens as proof that America is not the amazing place she has been claimed to be. According to a recent Gallup poll, only 47 percent of Americans are proud to be Americans. But many of us do not share that view. We believe America is amazing, and we are proud to be Americans.
This is not because we ignore those flaws, faults and mistakes. No, not at all: We see beyond them. They are not the sum of America; they are not a conclusion, they are not a prophecy, and they are not fate. They are places to learn and to grow from.
Some confuse perfection with goodness. No man can be perfectly good. No human being is perfect. No nation is perfect. But nations of imperfect people can do good things. Perfection belongs to God, and no man is God. We simply strive to do right by Him. As Victor Davis Hanson has noted, just because America is not perfect does not mean America is not good.
And it is these kinds of thoughts that, according to some, are of a relic known as “idealism.” But they cannot downplay ideals and then fault America for not being perfect.
And yet we live in an age where ideals are held in contempt. No one can live up to them, so why even bother? No one can achieve them, so why not just settle? It is not in the American character to back down or to settle. We must at least reach out and try. After all, America herself is an ideal to which we all constantly aspire. We should not shy away from trying to live up to that ideal, or any ideal. We will not always succeed — but this is America. Tomorrow, we have the freedom to try again.
America herself is a place of second chances. In the United States, every day is a new year. Every day is a chance to be better, to do good. Americans love comeback stories, underdog stories, success stories, and stories of faith and love above all. The United States has led the way around the world by example in countless stories, achievements, successes, missions, goals, advocacies, freeing, liberating, supporting, protecting and providing. Whether by faith and volunteerism; economic, political or military power; or by culture, innovation, technology, medicine and more — America is unrivaled, especially where these things prove good.
And Americans themselves are the most charitable people on the planet. Critics dismiss this as Americans simply having more to give. But just because you have more of something, does not mean you have to give. Americans believe wholly in the Judeo-Christian concept of charity, of giving: You do as God instructed, you do as Jesus did, you do this because it is the right thing to do. And so we give. Such values are central to the idea of being American.
Values take root in people, and people take root in the land, and between them, there is home: there is America. Our home has, in turn, been the source of the remaking and transforming of the world. Anyone can become an American, if that someone holds true to American values and America herself. Anyone in the world can adopt American values, and apply them in their own spheres. It has been noted by many others that America’s most valuable export is her ideas, and that this is her mission.
So then what is American idealism? One might say it is the American dream — not of the popular kind, of houses, of lawns, and of white picket fences — but to live freely and to live justly and to live in peace, all under the auspice of a common identity as Americans as a role model for the world.
We find that identity and the roots of American idealism in our founding documents. We have our moral, philosophical foundation in our Declaration of Independence, and we have those foundations codified and protected in our Constitution. We have a Constitution that stands as an edifice of protection. It does not breathe and change because rights are rights and they cannot be altered or abolished by man.
Like God’s covenants with Jews and Christians, we can see the Constitution, and the God-given rights and absolute values it draws upon, as a kind of covenant with ourselves — a promise to ourselves about who we are and what we believe and the faith we have in those things. It is a promise — and an ideal — handed down through generations, protected, defended, heralded, argued for. It is a promise that is timeless because of those absolutes it draws upon, that all men under God are created equal, and that in America, all men are protected equally under those laws.
If we honor God and our covenant, if we stay true to ourselves, our American promise will always be one of becoming, one never ending, one never ceasing, forever toward horizons, forever toward the rising course of dreams. We are, as John Winthrop said in 1630, to be as a shining city upon a hill, a model that the rest of the world would see. It was no accident that Winthrop’s words were inspired from the Bible, or that his words resonated with American exceptionalism, idealism, and promise long before America herself formally existed.