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Boyd Matheson: Is America still worth celebrating? (+podcast)

In a divisive and tumultuous time the question is whether or not America is still worth celebrating or emulating.
In a divisive and tumultuous time the question is whether or not America is still worth celebrating or emulating.
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Editor’s note: The following is a transcript of the episode. It's been edited for clarity.

Boyd Matheson: The July Fourth celebration of America is upon us, complete with parades, fireworks, patriotic speeches, community gatherings and family barbecues. In a divisive and tumultuous time, the question is whether or not America is still worth celebrating or emulating. Some answers on this episode of "Therefore, What?"

"Therefore, What?" is a weekly podcast that breaks down the news while breaking down barriers, challenges you and the status quo, explores timely topics and timeless principles, and leaves you confident to face what's next. I'm Boyd Matheson, opinion editor for the Deseret News, and this is "Therefore, What?"

In an increasingly negative and pessimistic world, some may wonder if there's anything left in America worthy of celebration. While there are major challenges in the country and problems aplenty to be sure, I say that there is plenty to cheer about in America. You know, last year the country lost a leading voice when Charles Krauthammer passed away. He regularly declared that this nation, warts and all, is a special place.

Krauthammer most accurately defined why the country is worth celebrating when he wrote, "America is the only country ever founded on an idea, the only country that is not founded on race or even common history. It's founded on an idea and the idea is liberty. That is probably the rarest phenomena in the political history of the world. This has never happened before. And not only has it not happened, it happened here and it's worked. We are the most flourishing, the most powerful, most influential country on earth with this system invented by the greatest political geniuses probably in the history of the world."

That's what Charles Krauthammer had to say. And I agree the idea of liberty is worth celebrating. That America continues as a beacon of freedom to freedom-loving people around the world is worth celebrating. Now, liberty is only a value if the principle is actually applied. President Woodrow Wilson declared on July 4, 1914, at Independence Hall of all places, that "liberty does not consist, my fellow citizens, he said, in mere general declarations of human rights of man, it consists in the translation of those declarations into definite action." Think about that. Definite action. He continued, "therefore, reading its business like sentences, we ought to ask ourselves what there is in it for us? There is nothing in it for us unless we can translate it into the terms of our own conditions and our own lives." And then President Wilson concluded, "patriotism consists in some very practical things, practical in that they belong to the life of every day, that they wear no extraordinary distinction about them, that they are connected with commonplace duty." I love that.

Commonplace duty, that is where the power of liberty, the principle of liberty is actually applied. The definite actions in commonplace duty exhibited daily by American citizens; that my friends is worth celebrating. Americans regularly donate millions of dollars and countless hours to lift the poor, serve the suffering, and strengthen those in need. American citizens are among the most charitable, most compassionate people on the planet, and are often the first on the scene of a natural disaster, first to volunteer, first to contribute, and first to rally to lend a hand. The goodness in the hearts of the people of America and the actions that goodness drives are worth celebrating. And not just on July Fourth.

From 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." Such a declaration is worth celebrating every single day. In the Declaration of Independence, it is a long litany, a long list of grievances, but among that they put in those truths, equality, life, liberty, all of those are worth celebrating, even the pursuit of happiness, which I think is largely misunderstood, in principle and in practice, is actually worth celebrating.

Thomas Jefferson actually said it this way, he said, "Happiness is the aim of life, but virtue is the foundation of happiness." Imagine a politician saying that today, that virtue is the foundation of happiness. To Jefferson, the meaning of the pursuit of happiness phrase meant so much more and was so much deeper than just fleeting emotional feelings or personal pleasure. Dr. Darren McMahon in his book "Happiness: A history," everybody should read that. He noted early Americans agreed that by pursuing the happiness of others, they helped to ensure their own. Think about that as a principle. There's a "Therefore, What?" for you for the day. Happiness, pursuing happiness is best achieved by helping others achieve happiness themselves.

And Americans who find true happiness by creating happiness for others, guess what? Those people are worth celebrating on July Fourth, and every other day of the year. The closing sentence of the Declaration of Independence is also worth noting. "And for the support of this declaration, with a firm reliance on the protection of divine providence, we mutually pledge to each other our lives, our fortunes and our sacred honor." Think about that. And think about those around us who regularly, often daily, pledge their lives, their fortune, and sacred honor. Those people are worth celebrating. The American citizens who have sacrificed much, even those who have sacrificed all, and I'm going to share a few of those with you today on this edition. Those people who have sacrificed everything in defense of freedom are worth celebrating, they're worth emulating. And they're worth remembering.

Those who have sacrificed their lives, those who have lived with the sacrifice of a lost loved one, those who have sacrificed a limb, those who have sacrificed a life of ease. Those who have sacrificed time and material comfort all for the cause of liberty, those people are worth celebrating. And it's worth noting that if America chooses to do its part, then perhaps a future generation will celebrate the efforts and commitment to freedom demonstrated by those of us living today. And that's a pretty tall order. And it's one that I think we've got to consider more now than ever before. So while international storm clouds may appear on the horizon, the crisis of addiction and disease of despair may loom in our communities, and anger along with discord and division may be fracturing our hearts and homes through political strife. With all of that trouble and more, some may still question if there's anything worth celebrating this Fourth of July.

The United States of America, the principles of liberty, and the resilient spirit of the American people really are still the last best hope on earth. And so I hope as you continue to listen to this podcast today that you will recognize that America and its people are still absolutely worth celebrating. And why are they worth celebrating? It's because not of where we live, not just what we believe. But what exceptional Americans actually do. Sometimes I think we get it wrong when we talk about American exceptionalism. I once had a very wise moment from my producer, Kylie Neslen, who always loves it when I call her out on the podcast. But she reminded me of something really critical and really important. And that is that American exceptionalism is not about the rare rags to riches kind of story. But it is about incredibly common stories, not of rags to riches, but of rags to enriching others.

You see, it's so easy, it is so easy for us to focus on the Bill Gates, the Steve Jobs, the Michael Jordans, the Oprah Winfrey types. And while those kinds of individuals are truly exceptional, extraordinary, achievements like theirs don't come along very often. And they really don't comprise the soul and heart and center of American exceptionalism either. The way I see it, it's the entrepreneur who starts in her garage, the one that becomes a millionaire is impressive to be sure, but what's truly exceptional is the woman who starts out in her garage, and then she earns just enough money to send her son off to college. Or it's that guy who starts doing some programming on the side to save for a house for his growing family or the teenager from a broken home who studies long and then works the night shift to make ends meet.

The rags to riches stories are good. They're actually good TV. They're inspiring in many ways, and they're always interesting. Yet it was the Founding Fathers' vision of an entire nation of citizens committed to the idea of rags to enriching others that actually inspired the revolution we celebrate this week on July Fourth. You see, American exceptionalism is not found in a lady in a harbor, although her lamp of liberty beckons the tired, the poor, the huddled masses yearning to be free to come and start their own rags to enriching others story. American exceptionalism is not found in marble monuments in our nation's capital, though those we honor there enriched a country and elevated the condition of humanity, by their service and by their sacrifice. That's exceptional. American exceptionalism is not found in our skyscrapers, our cities, or even in our technological advances, though they provide a space and place for exceptionalism to flourish.

So where is it then? Where then is American exceptionalism to be found? Well, I'm convinced now more than ever, that American exceptionalism is planted in the soul of every single citizen, it is fostered in our families and neighborhoods, and it's created in our communities, rags to enriching others really is a cottage industry, and it cannot be manufactured in a warehouse, can't be legislated into being by a Congress. It's up to each of us. And so let me give you some examples today of real American exceptionalism, rags to enriching others.

I experienced a rags to enriching others American exceptionalism in a pretty interesting way. And in a pretty interesting place. Actually, it's my local gas station, early in the morning. May not sound like the place you would go to find American exceptionalism. But I used to make pretty regular stops there at the gas station, somewhere between 5:30 and 6 a.m. in the morning, on my way to work, and that's always an interesting mass of humanity that stands in line at a gas station at that time of day. You've got construction workers with muddy boots, you've got doctors and nurses in scrubs, you've got business people in suits and ties, teenagers ready for school. And everyone in that line is usually a little bleary-eyed and buying whatever doughnut, candy or caffeinated beverage they need to jump-start their day. And I have to admit, most of us tend to be a little grumpy at that point in the day. And we'd usually stay that way until we were served a morning dose of American exceptionalism.

You see at this particular gas station, there was a rags to enriching clerk who I will call Mary. Mary had not had an easy life and working the shift from midnight to 8 a.m. had to be a challenge. But Mary was the epitome of American exceptionalism. There was an unmistakable, undeniable transformation that occurred from the moment a customer was in line to the moment they walked away from the counter. Mary knew everyone's name, she asked them a personal question, she listened. And then she sent them on their way with an inspiring thought and a sincere wish that they would have a wonderful day. And I tell you, Mary never, ever failed. She was magic. And she was absolutely exceptional.

I remember one morning in particular, being a little more grumpy than usual, weighed down with the prospects of a really difficult day ahead. But after making my purchase, and realizing that Mary had just elevated my day in what couldn't have been more than a 37-second transaction, I stopped at the door. And I watched for a few minutes, and I was struck that Mary was enriching and impacting lives in an incredible way. She was having a bigger influence on humanity than any business or political leader ever could. It was rags to enriching others at its very finest. Mary made a difference. Mary was exceptional. Mary was about rags to enriching others at its very, very best.

A couple other quick examples. During my time in Washington, D.C., I discovered that American exceptionalism was most often manifest by those who worked in the capital. Now, let me say that again, it's the people who worked in the capital. I'm not talking about the elected officials. One such person, coach David West, is usually found in and around the gallery of the Senate. His enthusiasm for that chamber, his love of country and his desire to make a difference is absolutely infectious. And interestingly, many of the young senate staffers found wise counsel, encouragement, and real confidence from any conversation they could have with coach West. And even though I was an older chief of staff, I too gained a lot of confidence from my conversations with coach West and was blessed by his American exceptionalism.

Another great person in the Senate, Peter Milagros, he regularly transforms the senators' dining room from a place to just eat and grab some food into a place where elevated experiences happen. And the moment you walk into that dining room, you are treated as if you are the most important person in the capital that day. Peter enriches everyone, from the senators themselves to the visitors who are there for the first time, he takes personal interest, pays attention to every detail, always ending with a handshake, thank you, and come back again real soon. So American exceptionalism is never defined by wealth, social status or fame. It's simply found in the lives of those who choose to enrich others. America is the most exceptional nation on Earth, not because of who we are, not because of where we live, but because of what we do. What we do individually, what we do collectively. And to me that's part of the July Fourth holiday, is that we should remember to look for and commit to live real American exceptionalism. It is the rags to enriching others story for all of us.

Now, let me wrap up with one last piece for our July Fourth edition of "Therefore, What?", and that is what it really means to put country first, and how that's different from a lot of what we hear in our politics today. Country first and America first. They sound similar, but they're actually light years apart. Country first connotes duty, honor, sacrifice and service. America first is founded on winning over rather than winning with others. America first may provide power to some for a season, but country first creates a legacy that will last well beyond our lifetime. I think of the great line, "Oh beautiful for heroes proved in liberating strife, who more than selves their country loved and mercy more than life." These lines from "America the Beautiful" to me epitomize the right kind of country first attitude in the nation.

Utah lost a great one, North Ogden Mayor Brent Taylor was tragically killed in Afghanistan. And while he rightly will be remembered as a man who lived a country first life, it was duty, honor, sacrifice and service that just oozed from every fiber of his being and were manifest by his daily actions. Brent Taylor understood and fully embraced president John F. Kennedy's instruction to the nation, "Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country." Putting country first is not limited to military service, first responders, law enforcement or other public service. Country first is about living up to the better angels of our nature and making a difference in our sphere of influence. Every act of kindness, every gesture of goodwill, every time we think of service before self, we are living country first. In so doing we are fulfilling the promise of America that de Tocqueville saw in the early days of the republic, lifting others not by force or government mandate, but by freely associating and coming together for the common good and the betterment of all.

Maj. Brent Taylor and Jennie Taylor along with their seven children.
Maj. Brent Taylor and Jennie Taylor along with their seven children.
Courtesy Jennie Taylor

Brent Taylor really is the epitome of country first, not because of the way he died, but because of the way he lived. He perpetually demonstrated that opportunities to serve are part of the abundance and freedom found in America, taking advantage of such opportunities to serve, to lift, to inspire, and to help is central to actually living the American dream. To me, that's what it's all about. Michelle Scharf, longtime political strategist and concerned citizen, along with her husband John, didn't know Brent Taylor very well. But the three were part of a social media group that tends to talk politics, the goodness of America, and of course, the blessing of bacon and Diet Coke. Those are all important things to the country. John also understood the power of sacrifice and service. Michelle's husband John fought a heroic battle against cancer, and in the midst of their life and death battle, John and Michelle lifted so many of us to higher ground. Rather than being carried in their time of trial, John and Michelle exhibited an authenticity and a courage that inspired and carried countless others along with them. It was exactly the kind of country first living that has made and preserved as a nation.

And interestingly, when John's fight with cancer was finished, Brent Taylor was actually in Afghanistan. Now he could have noted John's passing and continued to focus on his own battles far from home and family, but country first drove him to do something a little different. Taylor wrote, "Hey, Michelle, although we don't know each other very well, we are friends. I've been watching all your beautiful and heartbreaking posts about John's passing, and wishing there was something I could do to show my support to you and to your family. I did not know John, but I can tell from what everyone else has posted that he was a great man and a friend to all." And then Brent Taylor wrote this, "As I am in Afghanistan, I won't be able to attend the celebration of John's life tomorrow, but I wanted to do something from the other side of the world to honor your family and his memory." Taylor continued, "This morning, I climbed to the top of Garibgar mountain in Afghanistan, and flew a United States flag at the peak in John's memory." And he attached a picture. He said, "I wish you and your family healing and love at the celebration of John's life. God bless, Major Brent Taylor." He included that photo of him standing atop the peak with an American flag, holding a picture of John.

Read more: "North Ogden mourns loss of Maj. Brent Taylor"

Country first. Martin Luther King described America not as a place or simply a space rich in natural resources, but that America essentially a dream, a mindset, a way of being. Interestingly, after Brent Taylor was tragically killed, Major Abdul Rahman Rahmani from Afghanistan wrote Brent's wife, Jenny Taylor, and said, "Your husband taught me to love my wife Hamida as an equal and treat my children as treasured gifts, to be a better father, to be a better husband. And to be a better man." Jenny, like Michelle, has been blessed by and is showing each of us why a country first approach to living is indeed the way toward a better tomorrow, even in the midst of very difficult todays. It is so true that opportunistic politicians may channel an internally focused America first mantra to parlay angst and fear and frustration for power for a season.

But you know what? It's duty, it's honor, sacrifice and service of country first, that will stand as an eternal monument to those heroes proved, who lived their lives and gave their all to make a difference for others, and to ensure that the real dream of America continues as the last best hope on Earth.

Well, as always, we end with "Therefore, What?" And I'll keep it really simple today in our "Therefore, What?" I think it's very easy and honest and correct for us to say that our politics has failed in this country, for many reasons. But while our politics has failed, America will not because of the people who live here. As I said before, the "Therefore, What?" is not about where we live, or the resources of the land are the opportunities that it creates. The richness of America, and what we should celebrate this July 4 and every day is what people do in neighborhoods and communities every single day. The "Therefore, What?" for each of us is what am I going to do today, to ensure that the blessings of liberty are not just within me or my family, but that I'm extending those to my neighbors in need, to those in my community, and to those around the country who need a little help, who need to be lifted, who need to be inspired, who need to be blessed today. And that is the power of the most extraordinary country in the history of the world, a country that has lifted more people out of poverty, that has fueled more freedom, that has provided more an opportunity to dream big, to do more and to become all that they were endowed from a creator on high with possibility.

That's the America that I know. That is the America that I love and my "Therefore, What?" is that we live it and that we share it. Happy Fourth of July to everyone and remember as always that after the story is told, after the principle is presented, after the discussion and debate have been had, the question for all of us is "Therefore, What?" Don't miss an episode, subscribe to this podcast on Apple podcast or wherever you're listening today. And be sure to rate this episode and leave us a review. Follow us on Deseretnews.com/Tw and subscribe to our newsletter. This is Boyd Matheson, opinion editor for the Deseret News. Thanks for engaging with us on "Therefore, What?"

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