As I watch the London Olympic Games, I am struck by the displays of patriotism by athletes, their families, and the Americans in attendance, and the thought that came to my mind was, "They're behaving as if we are still a nation." I know that's a pretty cynical thought, but I challenge anyone to tell me what it is that still binds us together as the United States of America because, frankly, if there is a majority of people out there who share the same values, they need to step up and assert themselves, because if they don't, we are done as a nation.
Other nations have a homogeneity based on a common language, culture or ethnicity, but the strength of America was always that it was a nation based on common values and an uncommon idea and, if you subscribed to the American way, you were an American regardless of where you came from. America is the manifestation of an idea about how mankind should relate to God and the world, which made it unique at the time of its formation, as did the idea itself:
"We hold these truths to be self-evident, 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…"
Up until that point in world history, while the philosophies reflected in "The unanimous Declaration of the thirteen united States of America" were not new, no one had attempted to make them the foundation upon which a nation would be built. The governments of the world embraced "the divine right of kings" rather than the God-given sovereignty of the individual, and by implication the individual was subordinate rather than equal to those in the ruling class. Moreover, the individual's rights were determined not by "the laws of nature and nature's God," but by the caprice and whim of the state. Finally, the governments of that era exercised their power in spite of, rather than in accordance with, the people's consent, and their intention was not to secure the people's rights, but to grant or refuse them at will.
This American idea birthed a new and exceptional nation and, as the great orator, writer and statesman Frederick Douglass pointed out, even as he was excoriating his fellow Americans on Independence Day in 1852 for the practice of slavery, the idea was a promise to future generations that the nation was duty-bound to honor:
"Allow me to say, in conclusion, notwithstanding the dark picture I have this day presented of the state of the nation, I do not despair of this country. There are forces in operation, which must inevitably work the downfall of slavery."
He knew that any nation birthed under the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution of the United States, which he termed "a glorious liberty document," and the Bill of Rights could not stand as long as it lived in conflict with the values and laws expressed therein. As I write in my book, "I don't see the abolition of slavery, women's suffrage, the end of Jim Crow laws and the ascension of a black man to the White House as steps taken reluctantly, but rather the inevitable consequence of a nation whose constitutional law is ordered to the dignity and worth of the individual human person."
In other words, as long as we truly believed in the idea of America, it was impossible for us not to change in order to achieve it.
I would suggest to you, however, that our national consensus of what comprises that idea has eroded away completely and, with it, our cohesiveness as a nation. Even the words of the preamble to the Declaration of Independence engender intense disagreement.
"All men are created equal" means to some that "all men must remain equal" and, if they are not, then it is a systemic failure rather than a consequence of individual abilities, desires and decisions, and steps must be taken to achieve absolute equality, even though such steps likely involve the imposition of force upon those who must lose in order that others may gain. This violates rather than secures the rights of the people, and government ceases to derive its powers from the consent of the governed.
The notion of our rights being granted by a "Creator" is deemed antiquated by the voices of reason, which deny the existence of such a divine and powerful being, yet leave many questions unanswered.
If our rights are self-evident, who or what makes them so? If there is no being or institution greater than man or man-made associations to define our rights, is it not then impossible for all men to be equal, since those who define our rights, which are ostensibly self-evident, unalienable and granted to all, must be of greater stature than the rest of us? Does this not return us to the concept of a ruling class, and are we to presume their benevolence and wisdom are such that they will preserve our rights simply because it's the right thing to do?
You see, even though the ruling class all over the world routinely denies us our rights, the idea that it is not their place to do so, and that the rights of all mankind come from a source that transcends human beings, gives us hope, inspires us, and moves us to action to reclaim our birthright. If rights are nothing more than privileges granted by a king, they are neither self-evident nor unalienable, and we are at the mercy of other men.
The breakdown of consensus continues. "Life" to some means "life as long as you are not a drain on society, or on someone's personal desires or ambitions, or as long as you don't have a mental or physical disability, or the wrong gender, or as long as you're a contributor to society, or can expect a sufficient quality of life as arbitrarily determined by people lacking the capacity to see into the future."
"Liberty" to some means "liberty to say or do whatever I want, regardless of how it might affect others, except if someone else's liberty is offensive to me, in which case I want them to shut up or be forced to my point of view."
"The pursuit of happiness" to some is "the guarantee of happiness, whatever it is that makes me happy, even if someone else's happiness is adversely affected in order for me to be happy."
"Consent of the governed" to some means "consent of the governed with the loudest megaphone, or the largest confederation of special interests, or who control the opinion-shaping institutions like the press, academia and the arts, or who can most effectively intimidate their opponents into silence or submission."
In short, we have no national consensus which binds most of us together. When we disagree on the main ideas of who we are as a nation, is it any wonder that respect for and tolerance of divergent views, the presumption of good will, and consideration for the feelings of others are no longer hallmarks of discussion and debate?
A recent Pew Research survey shows Americans more polarized along partisan lines today than at any time in the 25 years they've been measuring American values, and the gap between Republicans and Democrats when it comes to values is greater than race, gender, age or class divides. We can't even use the same words without arguing over what they mean.
As children - at least when I was a child! - we pledged allegiance to the flag and "to the republic for which it stands - one nation under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all."
Our differences, however, have become so pronounced that we are sliced and diced to the point where our only option might be to go our separate ways.
History teaches us that empires rise and fall, and even shows us how so we can learn from the mistakes of the past, but German philosopher G.W.F. Hegel may have said it best when he cynically noted, "What experience and history teach us is this—that people and governments never have learned anything from history, or acted on principles deduced from it."
We are on a path to becoming The Divided States of America, and unless we can recall from the dark recesses of our collective memory what binds us together as a nation, we have no justification for remaining together.
So you tell me – other than living on the same continent and within the arbitrarily defined borders of a nation called the United States of America, what do we all believe without reservation or equivocation? Is it enough to keep us one?