Finding Meaning in the American Story Independence Day Reflections
By Steven Windmueller, Ph.D.
As we observe July 4th and pay tribute to our nation on its 233rd anniversary, this moment affords us an opportunity to identify those sustaining and unique values that define our country. From its founding, Jewish Americans have had a unique connection with this republic, as it has been a welcoming, creative and sustaining home for our community.
What beliefs underlie the thriving relationship that Jews have with the American story? A year ago, in connection with this national holiday, this writer laid out twelve principles that provided a framework for understanding the uniqueness of this experiment with democracy. The ten themes introduced here build off of those values.
The American Creed: Beyond our particular political passions and party affiliation, there exists a set of binding principles that define us as “Americans.” The founders of this republic wanted the instruments of government to be understood as a positive force for good within the society, creating a common civic bond.
Law as Culture: In the United States the legal system is responsive to the public’s vision of the society. Even as this nation debates its political priorities, Constitutional principles undergird and sustain the political order and social norms of our republic.
Liberty vs. Obligation: If Judaism is centered on one’s obligation to the community, “Americanism” must be seen as a celebration of liberty. Freedom is expressed through personal rights; religious practices are demonstrated through collective actions. In many ways, engaging with these two different legal systems compliments and enhances both, while enriching us its beneficiaries.
The Idea of Balance: Not only is the Constitution framed around the “separation of powers” but also addresses the distribution of resources and responsibilities between local and national authorities, the individual and the collective, and the competing notions of dissent and consent of the governed. The founders saw these “balances” as a way to limit yet distribute power and as means for ensuring broader civic participation.
Civility as a Value: In an age of political upheaval, the true test of citizenship is the ability to “hear” one’s opponent. Civility is about the act of listening without judging the character of the other, only the merits of their arguments. Societies thrive in a setting where ideas are subject to critical review and debate.
Embracing Diversity: The American engagement with multiculturalism gives special credence to welcoming the other. Democracy resonates with the idea of difference. Over its historic journey, this society has evolved from only empowering white men to granting citizenship to all, viewing everyone equal before the law.
Individual Rights vs. Group Interests: An Individual’s rights are protected and nurtured by the Constitution. “Life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” are the measures by which the interests of its citizens are advanced. The “right to assemble peacefully” and the “right to petition” offer the means for collective expression by our citizens. America is both about advancing individual self-interests and rights and focusing on the common good.
The Celebration of Religious Freedom: From the outset this was a religious society. Religion was seen as strengthening the social and moral fiber of the society. Yet even as faith communities flourished, the right to remove oneself from religious life was understood as an accepted cultural tenet. The law itself is seen as neutral on religion, just as the society embodies today multiple expressions of faith and practice.
The Power of Ideas: America allows for an idea to become reality. The genius of this nation is defined by its openness to innovation and its capacity to embrace change. The very notion of an “America” and what it could become may represent the most significant contribution. As citizens, we asked to play a role in perfecting this society: “establish justice, insure domestic tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general welfare, and secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity.”
Voluntarism as an American Ideal: Writing about his travels through the United States in the 1830s, Alexis de Tocqueville commented on the presence of voluntary associations as an important foundation that promoted democracy. A society thrives on community service and acts of loving-kindness, values basic to this nation’s culture and also inherent within Judaism.
Promoting an American Political Renaissance:
Beyond embracing these core concepts, American Jews have a stake in strengthening this democracy. An educated, engaged constituency is the first step toward building a more vital society.
- We need to advocate for citizen education and the reintroduction of civics into American education.
- We must pursue policies and civic actions that promote voter registration and participation.
- We should encourage and prepare a generation of citizen activists, where individuals assume roles as candidates, advocates, and organizers.
- We ought to promote wherever possible citizens’ dialogue that transcends political party or ideology and that allows for conversations of intention.
- We should advance the idea of community town halls where citizens can meet together.
In the end, the Jewish community, in association with other institutions of this nation, can help advance a citizens’ based political renaissance by advancing these and other initiatives.
Even as we find today our nation and our Jewish community deeply divided, we collectively embrace the vision of an American democracy that promotes such values as civil debate, the right to dissent, the freedom of speech, and the right to assemble. This is the moment to remember these sacred and essential benefits to the American political order.
Love of and engagement with this country are the galvanizing forces behind this democratic experiment. As we celebrate Independence Day, let us find ways to embrace the American story!
Steven Windmueller is the Rabbi Alfred Gottschalk Emeritus Professor of Jewish Communal Service at the Jack H. Skirball Campus of HUC-JIR, Los Angeles. Dr. Windmueller’s writings can be found on his website, www.thewindreport.com