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Is America great? That depends on all of us

Memorial Day on the lakefront. | Sun-Times file photo by Rick Majewski

What makes America great? It’s not a flag.

Other countries have flags. Soldiers throughout history have died fighting for their flags. For their countries. For their kings, their dictators, their “presidents.”

Respect for the flag has been required in many of those nations. People who refused to salute, to stand, to pay tribute to the flag were imprisoned. It didn’t make those countries any better.

Members of the Jehovah’s Witnesses, who believe their loyalty belongs to God’s kingdom, were imprisoned in Nazi Germany because they refused to sing nationalistic songs, salute the dictator or display fealty to the flag.

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That’s one thing that makes America great. We respect religious freedom.

We also have a belief in freedom of speech that many of our own people, maybe most, often find offensive.

In ruling that an anti-flag burning law passed by Congress was unconstitutional, Supreme Court Justice William Brennan wrote, “If there is a bedrock principle underlying the First Amendment, it is that the Government may not prohibit the expression of an idea simply because society finds the idea itself offensive or disagreeable.”

Are we still great? Some people want to make America great again. Others claim America was never great.

Is this still the country where dissent is not only allowed, but considered essential to the health of the republic?

Some people say it is the Constitution which sets us apart. It is certainly a marvelous document. But other countries have constitutions that promise freedom and liberty to their people.

The Constitution of the Russian Federation states, “Man, his rights and freedoms are the supreme value. The recognition, observance and protection of the rights and freedoms of man and citizen shall be the obligation of the State.” Furthermore, the Russian constitution declares “No ideology may be established” and “ideological diversity shall be recognized.”

Sounds great. It’s just words on paper.

There are people who believe our military might is what makes America great.

But soldiers have been hailed as heroes in their homelands throughout history, even when they fought for countries controlled by despots. They died for causes they believed in, for their countries, sometimes out of religious conviction.

Americans historically did not trust the military. Millions came to this country to escape conscription. Our founders saw a standing army as an enemy of a free state. It could be used by an egomaniacal leader to install himself as king. There was even fear that George Washington would use the army in that way. No leader could be trusted.

Now the president feels a need to have a military parade, to embrace the military and show off our strength to foreign countries.

Is military might the strength of the nation? Is it what makes America great?

Maybe it’s the court system? Our Congress?

Other countries have court systems and other countries have elected bodies of some type that allegedly “represent” the people. They have elections. Yet, there is no justice. The average person’s vote is not counted.

Thomas Jefferson said, “The spirit of our citizens…rising with a strength and majesty which show the loveliness of freedom, will make this government in practice what it is in principle, a model for the protection of man in a state of freedom and order.”

Most of us take citizenship for granted for most of our lives. We don’t see ourselves as the custodians of the government, the courts, the Constitution. Flag-waving, jingoism and political partisanship give us a feeling of having done our duty.

But there are times such as this that require us to exercise true citizenship. They demand the use of atrophied muscles. They remind us that we ultimately are responsible for providing “liberty and justice for all.”

The greatness of America ultimately depends on all of us. Always has. Always will.

And now it is your turn to determine if America is great.

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