I learned as a child it is much easier to tear down than to build something worthwhile. It seems our political discourse has forgotten this simple lesson. 

Critical race theory is seeping into our foundational institutions and attacking what it means to be American. This dangerous philosophy undermines our founding principles, institutions, social mobility and history itself — threatening to take us backward in time, not forward.

Just what is at the heart of this ideology? Critical race theory is based on the premise that the United States is a fundamentally racist country and that American hallmarks such as the Constitution, property rights, color blindness and equal protection under the law are vestiges of white supremacy, patriarchy and capitalist oppression. It categorizes people as either oppressors or victims based on skin color, making race the prism through which American life is viewed.    

But this view gets it exactly wrong. The problem is not America’s principles; the problem is rejecting them. 

It is precisely our principles that have bound us together and provided the basis for freedom, equality, and opportunity. 

As Martin Luther King put it in his “I Have a Dream” speech:

“When the architects of our great republic wrote the magnificent words of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence, they were signing a promissory note to which every American was to fall heir. This note was a promise that all men, yes, Black men as well as white men, would be guaranteed the inalienable rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”

America has not always made good on this promise to all her citizens — resulting in some grievous, horrific injustice. But he rightly understood that the promise was there.

Instead of embracing that unifying truth and history, activists instead are calling America fundamentally racist and the flag a symbol of hate and bigotry.

When Martin Luther King and John Lewis marched the streets of Montgomery and Selma they did so with the American flag because it represents all of us. It represents freedom.

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The beauty of the American founding was the promise of a character-based meritocracy, in which no matter who you are and where you come from, you could have an “unfettered start, and a fair chance, in the race of life.” The promise was that through hard work, perseverance and personal responsibility, everyone could build a happy and productive life for themselves and their families.

Sadly, this is exactly what critical race theory seeks to destroy. And this toxic ideology is spreading like a cancer throughout our schools, politics, workplaces, universities and military.

It is teaching school children to primarily identify each other based on race, that everything that happens in the world is “racist” and that, depending on the color of your skin, you are irredeemably part of the problem.

Last year, the National Museum of African-American History and Culture, produced a document for use in schools that claimed ideas such as “hard work is the key to success” and that trying to “be polite” are evidence of an oppressive society (museum officials later apologized for the references).

Critical race theory is also undermining unity, credibility and loyalty within our military. The beauty of military service is that the uniform and the common mission unites those of all colors, classes and religions. But now, service members are being taught to assess their fellow service members’ trustworthiness and capability based on the color of their skin; and that the very Constitution they swear to support and defend is inherently racist. 

To be clear, racism is reprehensible, and any vestiges of it must be condemned. But attacking our founding principles is not the solution. 

On the contrary, it is in recommitting to our principles that we have been able to make real progress in our nation and improve life for all our citizens. It was in following them that the nation was spurred to end slavery, banish segregation, and abolish Jim Crow laws; and it is how we will make progress going forward. 

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The path forward will not be found in tearing down the precious truths and beliefs that unite us. Instead, it will be building on their sure foundation.

Sen. Mike Lee is the senior United States senator from Utah.