America is a land of great diversity, with many cultures, subcultures, differing political ideologies, religions and philosophies. To be an American is not like being English, Italian, Irish, Spanish, Chinese, etc. – sharing a cultural identity that is as much ethnicity as nationality. America is a land of immigrants. Even Native Americans, while native to this land, were foreign to the system of government and western culture that America would become. Neither is America simply a geographical area; states separated from the American mainland (Hawaii and Alaska) are more culturally American than Mexico or Canada, even though they are separated by far less distance.
What does it mean to be an American? Of course, there is citizenship–but citizenship is a classification, a legal term only. Since the rise of multi-culturalism in the 1970s, it is very possible for “hyphenated Americans” to live as American citizens, but to identify with and even to be more loyal to their ancestral homeland than to America. In decades past, immigrants often came to the shores of America in waves – thousands would come from Ireland in one wave of immigration. A few years later, thousands more would come from Germany or Eastern Europe; then a new wave would follow from Italy and so on. New immigrants would band together, and seek help from relatives already living in the U.S.–requirements of sponsorship for new immigrants necessitated such patterns. These “Little Italys”, “Chinatowns”, Polish neighborhoods or Czechoslovakian farming communities were common throughout the country before the World Wars. The first generation immigrants spoke their native tongues, and lived as immigrants in America. Following generations learned English, served in the military, and eventually migrated out of their ethnic neighborhoods. Following generations also lost their hyphenated identities, retaining their heritage in festivals and favorite foods, but becoming simply American.
To be an American has more to do with the reason one chooses to live in America than simply residence. Historically, immigrants have come to America for two reasons, necessity and freedom. Bridging those motives is opportunity. Some came here to escape political oppression, religious discrimination, bigotry and economic hardship. Others came here for more philosophical reasons – to live in freedom and join in the great American experiment of democratic self-rule. America was a beacon of opportunity both to the downtrodden and desperate, and to the more educated and affluent idealists.
The actor, Bill Murray, summarized the first group in a monologue from the movie Stripes–“We're all very different people. We're not Spartans, we're not Watusi, we're Americans, with a capital `A.' That means our forefathers were thrown out of every decent country in the world.”
“Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,”
The poor and oppressed of the world have long comprised the majority of immigrants who come to America. However it is the later group, the idealists, who hammered out the philosophy and system of government that would make America truly America – the land that would offer opportunity to the “wretched refuse” of the world. This Americanism would offer the “wretched refuse” a chance to leave behind their identities as “huddled masses yearning to be free”, and become individuals; citizens with individual rights and freedoms, property owners with the economic opportunities that would typify the American Dream.
These idealists were the Founding Fathers – the signers, Jefferson, Franklin, Rush, Adams, Carroll, Hancock, Paine, 56 in all, joined by patriots and rebels throughout the colonies, like Washington and Madison, the great men of American history. These men of privilege, education, money and property risked everything for the simple principles enshrined in the Declaration of Independence:
Only a handful of the signers survived the Revolutionary War. Many of them witnessed their property confiscated or burned, their families killed before their eyes and were themselves executed. Their sacrifice was not for themselves or their heirs, who could have continued to live in comfort and economic security under the rule of England. Their sacrifice was for the “wretched refuse”, so that the “huddled masses” might have the opportunity to live in freedom and aspire to greatness. The Messianic parallels are evident now, but were even clearer to those who sacrificed their lives for our freedom–they were men of deep religious faith, who sought to follow Christ’s teaching and example.
Ronald Reagan told the story of a refugee whose first words upon spying a Coast Guard officer were, “Hello America; hello freedom man!” On this Independence Day, let us remember what America should be, not hyphenated or multicultural, or deeply divided by political, religious or philosophical lines, but a beacon of freedom to the world. Remember the Founding Fathers, the patriots of the Revolution, remember the nearly 500,000 Union troops who died in the Civil War to ensure the freedoms of others (and the nearly 400,000 Confederate troops, most of whom fought not for the continuation of slavery, but for principles of self-rule), remember the Alamo, remember the 116,516 who died in World War I to liberate Europe, remember the 405,399 who died in World War II to liberate Europe and save the world from Nazi and Fascist domination. Remember the Americans who prevented Soviet Communism from world domination in the Cold War, and the more than 100,000 Americans who died trying to save Korea and Vietnam from communist oppression, even when many in our nation would not stand behind them. Remember those who fight and die today, trying to protect America from radical Islam, by bringing freedom to Afghanis and Iraqis in deserts on the other side of the world.
Pray for our troops. Pray that Americans will always be “freedom man”. Pray for our nation. Pray that our nation will not be torn apart by internal divisions. Pray that Americans will once again embrace Americanism…with a capital “A”.