Today, for the 245th time, we celebrate our experiment in self-government. A species, that for most of its existence has lived under kings, dictators and tyranny, continues its attempt to prove that government by the masses can be enduring.
Throughout those 245 years, crises have arisen that have imperiled the idea of a self-governing people. Any close examination of our political system reveals many splinters across the spectrum. At any given moment, a majority of us may believe that the nation is headed in the wrong direction.
Regardless, 25 years ago, George Roche, then president of Hillsdale College in Michigan, suggested that Americans make lists to recall why we have reason to celebrate our existence under our particular form of government. We make lists — any lists — he said, so that we will not forget what is important. Roche’s lists recall the qualities that build good character and make for good citizenship.
He wrote, “For over 200 years, we have found ways of overcoming adversity and succeeding against all odds. Though they may sometimes be threatened, our best qualities — optimism, resilience, moral imagination, ingenuity, charity, compassion and spiritual strength — have a way of resurfacing when we need them most.”
Roche starts with the preamble to the Declaration of Independence. It includes five essential points:
• 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.
• That to secure these rights, governments are instituted among men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.
• That whenever any form of government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the right of the people to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new government.
However, most of the Declaration is comprised of a list of complaints against King George III and the British government. Among the complaints were:
• He has refused his assent to laws, the most wholesome and necessary.
• He has dissolved representative houses.
• He has obstructed the administration of justice.
• He has erected a multitude of new offices and sent hither swarms of officers to harass our people and eat out their substance.
The Founding Fathers believed it was a natural right to be free enough to govern themselves. Thus, Roche added to his list several points from the final paragraph of Pope John Paul II’s October 1995 speech to the United Nations:
• It is no accident that we are here.
• Each and every human person has been created in the “image and likeness” of the One who is the origin of all that is.
• We have within us the capacities for wisdom and virtue.
• With these gifts, and with the help of God’s grace, we can build in the next century and the next millennium a civilization worthy of the human person, a true culture of freedom.
• And in doing so, we shall see that the tears of this century have prepared the ground for a new springtime of the human spirit.
Roche concluded his lists of qualities needed for good character and strong citizenship with the Ten Commandments.
However, Roche also listed fears that remain with us today as much as a quarter century ago.
• The loss of values — He wrote, “We no longer seem to think that our values are worth defending.”
• The loss of truth — The politically correct “tell us that truth really isn’t objective at all; it depends on our point of view.”
• The loss of moral literacy — “Honor and virtue are increasingly rare commodities. Cheating and lying have become acceptable.”
• The loss of trust — “We Americans are skeptical about many of the things we should believe, while we blindly accept many of the things we should question.”
• The loss of empathy — He quotes newspaper columnist Bob Greene, who wrote, “We have increasingly become a nation of citizens who watch anything and everything as if it is all a show.”
• The loss of independence and confidence — We are less independent because we have lost confidence in ourselves. Roche wrote, “We have grown accustomed to thinking that there are some problems that are just so big and complex that only something else that is big and complex — like government — can tackle them.”
• The loss of family — “The breakdown of the family, rather than poverty or race, or any other factor once cited by the liberal establishment is now widely recognized as the real root cause of rising rates of substance abuse, teen suicide, abortion, academic failure, welfare dependency and violent crime.”
• The loss of faith —Roche wrote that although millions of us still attend church and profess to believe in a Creator, “we hold ourselves aloof from God. … This is more shocking than if we had become atheists.”
In 2021, we have plenty of naysayers on both sides of the political divide, telling us what a terrible nation this has become and dwelling only on where we have fallen short. On our collective 245th birthday, the recommendation here is to make your own list, focusing first on what is right and just about this nation. Take Roche’s lists and add and subtract as you see fit, always aiming to improve our collective character so that we can all enjoy the fruits of liberty.
Tom West, now retired, is the former general manager of this paper. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.