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Our country may be flawed, but the American idea is perfect

SHARE Our country may be flawed, but the American idea is perfect

An American flag flies at Utah Veterans Cemetery and Memorial Park in Bluffdale on Memorial Day, Monday, May 25, 2020.

Ivy Ceballo, Deseret News

July 4, 2010. An Independence Day I’ll never forget. There were no fireworks, no parades, no barbecues and as far as I could tell, no other Americans. Alone in a foreign country, all I had to celebrate with was a tiny souvenir flag. With my hand over my heart, I pledged allegiance to it. The flag evoked a sense of freedom, familiarity and belonging — the feeling of home. Never have I felt more connected to my country than in a cramped, one-bedroom apartment more than 4,000 miles away.  

In the decade since, my love for the Stars and Stripes has only grown, even as its meaning has become a flashpoint in the culture war. The good news is, it doesn’t have to be this way. With a deeper understanding of the flag and the ideals it represents, we can heal our greatest divisions and set our country back on the right course. 

When America’s early pilgrims made their Atlantic voyage, they looked to the heavens for help — both literally and metaphorically. With rudimentary navigation instruments, they had only the stars to guide them in their journey to an unknown wilderness. There, they dreamed of building a new government that would be a model to the world, “a shining city on a hill.”  

Today, we live in the shining city they built. We have inherited the pilgrims’ mission, and like them, we still look to the stars in our efforts to build a better, more prosperous society. Only now, we look to another constellation. 

Fifty stars adorn the American flag. We gaze up at them when we sing the national anthem or recite the pledge of allegiance. They, of course, represent the 50 American states. But insofar as they are woven into the tapestry of our national symbol, they represent something higher, something more aspirational — our ideals.  

Carl Schurz, the great American statesman, once said: “Ideals are like the stars: we never reach them, but like the mariners of the sea, we chart our course by them.” And so it is with us. For more than 200 years, we have looked to our ideals to guide the affairs of this country. And this week, we celebrate its founding ideal — the belief that everyone, regardless of color, class or creed, is created equal. 

Time and again, we have fallen short of that ideal. But is this reason to abandon the American project altogether? 

Sadly, an alarming number of people seem to think so. These include mobs who have hijacked a noble cause — peaceful protests against racial injustice — and twisted it to advance an extreme political agenda. In recent weeks, these mobs have toppled statues of Ulysses S. Grant and Hans Christian Heg, avowed abolitionists who dedicated their lives to dismantling slavery. They have defaced churches, graffitied national monuments and of course, desecrated the American flag. Both by their words and their actions, these opportunists have made clear that their goal is not to change the system from within but to burn it down completely. 

What’s most disturbing about the recent spike in mob violence — other than the nihilism driving it — is that it’s only a symptom of a larger problem: a growing loss of confidence in the American idea. 

Our nation is experiencing something akin to a faith crisis. Disillusioned by the gap between our ideals and our ability to live up to them, many have given up on the notion that America is exceptional at all. According to the Pew Research Center, more than a third of young adults believe that other countries are better than the United States. Not helping is the growing popularity of a reductionist version of history that seeks to redefine the entire American experience as an ongoing racial struggle. We are a culmination of the stories we tell ourselves. And right now, the prevailing story being told — both in our culture and in our universities — is that America is irredeemably racist. 

Except it isn’t. 

The entire American story is one of redemption — of constant betterment, course correction and change. The same Pilgrims who followed the stars across the ocean came here seeking salvation, and so have millions of immigrants since. America is the promise of a fresh start, a place where individuals can shake off their past selves to become something new. Here, ethnicity, education and pedigree don’t define us. What defines us is our commitment to building a more perfect union, one where all people are treated as equals. 

We still have a ways to go before realizing this vision, especially on the issue of race. But by holding fast to our founding principles, and by following them as we would the stars, we can reach safer shores. America the country may be flawed — but America the idea is perfect. We can’t lose faith in it now. 

Sam Lyman is the policy research director at the Orrin G. Hatch Foundation and a former speechwriter at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the U.S. Senate. His views are his own.