During a recent visit to a high school government class, a student asked me what to do to make America better. Though I’ve been asked this question many times, my response this time was different: “When someone tells you that America is inherently bad,” I said, “don’t believe it.”
Many of us now find ourselves compelled to defend our country. We have watched historical sites defaced, businesses destroyed, and law enforcement treated with incivility and contempt.
Several weeks ago, I wrote a piece that ended with this question: Do we swear allegiance to a nation that is flawed but getting better? Or do we give in to tribalism, even while knowing that division and oppression have always left people destitute and disappointed?
I choose to continue to defend the goodness of an America that continues to evolve into a more perfect union.
The death of George Floyd has reminded us that there may be individuals — even some we trust to enforce the law — who will sometimes break our trust. But using lawlessness and hatred as a polemic for tragedy significantly stunts movement toward a solution.
I hope we are not collectively beginning to forget the heavy price our country paid — and was willing to pay — for an embryonic beginning of emancipation and civil rights. A civil war that killed 618,000 of our young soldiers — more than any conflict in American history.
The end of the war was followed by a hundred years of slow progress: The 13th, 14th and 15th amendments abolishing slavery, granting citizenship, and bestowing voting rights to all citizens respectively. At a pace we look back on and wish had been swifter, movements for desegregation and integration in sports, the military, transportation and education slowly came.
It was messy. It was imperfect.
The Civil Rights Act of 1964 was a true milestone. Still, it needed and received supplementation in 1965 with the Voting Rights Act. Since then, we have steadily tried to alleviate tension, bigotry and inequality. We have taught our children that discrimination is wrong, and why. We have continued to legislate, vote and elect. We have made strides.
There are many milestones left to pursue, but if we disregard the progress, we run the dangerous risk of dissolving it.
America has often been revered as The Shining City Upon a Hill. But I think of it as more of a mountain, a treacherous path to the top — rocky and steep, with many cliffs and dangerous trails along the way. And every generation or so, a critical choice is put before us. Do we give up, turn and plunge off a nearby cliff, or do we keep climbing toward the “more perfect union”?
I reject the notion that the United States of America is so flawed, so deeply steeped in racism, bigotry and bias, that we literally need to start from scratch to create a perfect nation.
There will always be weaknesses and occasional malicious acts by some of our leaders. But when I consider the inspiring highlights from our history, I believe we can continue to progress.
The United States has a foundation built on democracy, service, sacrifice and improvement. America’s Founding Fathers began with the notion that our citizens could ultimately leave behind the tradition of class distinctions and be rewarded for their own hard work with upward mobility.
It is important to remember that they also believed in welcoming immigrants who were willing to live by the ideals of our republic.
We’ve gained victories in women’s rights, education and a free market economy. Many of us remember in our lifetime the U.S. as a key facilitator in the rise of the democratic process in Eastern Europe and in the retrenchment of communism.
Our military stands as a bastion of hope for countries throughout the world. America routinely sends our service men and women to areas of the world where people could otherwise not fight for themselves against tyranny. We will defend the defenseless, with no expectation of anything in return.
Ronald Reagan reminded us of the noble meaning of equal rights: “Freedom is the recognition that … every individual life is infinitely precious, that every one of us put on this world has been put here for a reason and has something to offer.” And while the purpose of the federal government is not to ensure that all men are equal, but that all men are equally free, President Reagan had it right. All of us can offer something, and we can look to the future for its brightness of hope.
Chris Stewart represents Utah’s 2nd Congressional District in the U.S. House of Representatives.