I have always loved the line, “O beautiful for patriot dream, That sees beyond the years,” from “America the Beautiful.” True patriots are able to see beyond a current moment of crisis or challenge because they know what to look for and what to ignore. 

Patriots are never distracted or discouraged by divisive rhetoric or partisan politics, which often cloud the present view. Sometimes in the fog of a cultural war, the haze of hate and contempt, or the mist of uncertainty in current circumstances, it can be difficult to see. But the patriot always continues to look and learn, observe and contemplate. 

Patriots see clearly because they are looking through the lens of history’s ideals, memories and lessons while gazing toward future dreams with the confidence that comes from a character forged in commitment to principles and a conviction that the cause of freedom is just.

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In 1926 on the 150th celebration of the Declaration of Independence, President Calvin Coolidge spoke of the need to remember, see and remain connected with the founding principles and spiritual ideals that formed the nation. 

Coolidge, an underappreciated president, said, “A spring will cease to flow if its source be dried up; a tree will wither if its roots be destroyed. In its main features the Declaration of Independence is a great spiritual document. It is a declaration not of material but of spiritual conceptions. Equality, liberty, popular sovereignty, the rights of man — these are not elements which we can see and touch. They are ideals. They have their source and their roots in the religious convictions. They belong to the unseen world. Unless the faith of the American people in these religious convictions is to endure, the principles of our Declaration will perish. We cannot continue to enjoy the result if we neglect and abandon the cause.”

President Coolidge was clearly not attempting to establish any particular religion for the country. He was pointing out that there is a soul in the people of this nation — and all who come here to seek freedom — that is spiritual in nature. Coolidge was emphasizing that if we, as citizens, neglect or abandon such ideals, our ability to see beyond the years will be dimmed and freedom will falter. 

We cannot live up to our principles and ideals unless we are willing to continually look to them and see them with clear eyes. Today we are nearly 100 years further down the path on this grand experiment called America from the days of President Coolidge. Progress has been made on so many fronts despite continued, frustrating failure in critical areas of equality and justice. We can see the daunting, unprecedented challenges before us and still catch a glimpse of the unlimited opportunities within us.

Can we see beyond the years? Backward in the realm of memory can we see and understand the nuances of complex, imperfect individuals and their commitment to the notion of a new nation? Can we gaze forward with hope and confidence into the audacious dreams of a better tomorrow? Are we willing to sharpen our focus and expand our view as we look to both memories and dreams?

In the early 1800s, Pope Pius VII was taken prisoner by Napoleon Bonaparte and placed in a prison in France. For several difficult years the pontiff was held captive. Cardinal Timothy Dolan once described what it was that enabled Pope Pius VII to remain strong and see beyond the trial of his long imprisonment: “After his release, Pope Pius VII was asked how he survived those years as a prisoner, and he responded by saying he never lost two treasured possessions, his memory and his dreams. The memory of what God had done for him and the dreams awaiting him.”

Memory and dreams can help every patriot see the ideals of the founding in their proper light and remain committed to keeping them. Too many Americans have abdicated their role by looking to government instead of seeing and applying principles from within.

“Memory and dreams can help every patriot see the ideals of the founding in their proper light and remain committed to keeping them.”

Coolidge continued: “We are too prone to overlook another conclusion. Governments do not make ideals, but ideals make governments. This is both historically and logically true. Of course the government can help to sustain ideals and can create institutions through which they can be the better observed, but their source by their very nature is in the people. The people have to bear their own responsibilities. There is no method by which that burden can be shifted to the government. It is not the enactment, but the observance of laws, that creates the character of a nation.”

Punctuating the idea of what citizens must see, observe and uphold, Coolidge concluded:

“If there is any one thing among us that is established beyond question, it is self-government — the right of the people to rule. If there is any failure in respect to any of these principles, it is because there is a failure on the part of individuals to observe them. We hold that the duly authorized expression of the will of the people has a divine sanction.”

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Self-government comes with high-risk and great responsibility. The responsibility is to look and see and then act according to principle.

As the nation debates mask wearing, school openings, law enforcement, equal justice and a host of other issues, it would be wise to view the words of Emile Durkheim: “Where mores are sufficient, laws are unnecessary. Where mores are insufficient, laws are unenforceable.” 

While mandates can be made and legislative solutions are often necessary in society, both are absolutely insufficient to raise the vision of the American people or inspire them to act.

All of us should remember that patriots are not designated by political party. Patriots are determined by their dreams and their ability to see beyond the years — both backward and forward. So, the ultimate question for each of us continues to echo down the corridor of time, “Oh say can you see?” What we see in our memories of history and what we see in our dreams of the future will determine who we will be.

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