Hungarian-born politics professor Peter W. Schramm gives a heart-warming account of his family’s flight from Communist oppression in 1956.
Having endured a litany of hardships any one of which might break a man, the senior Mr. Schramm finally had enough the day a hand grenade (a dud, fortunately) landed right next to him while he was out scrounging for bread.
“But where are we going?” young Peter asked.
His dad didn’t have to think about it. “America” was the obvious answer.
“Because, Son, we were born Americans, but in the wrong place.”
I’ve long loved that anecdote because it embodies all that America has been to oppressed peoples all over the world.
Ours is the only nation in the history of the world to be founded on a moral idea – the equal dignity of persons – rather than evolving organically from a tribe or language group.
That is at once its greatness and its fragility.
The Declaration of Independence asserts America’s raison d’etre: “That all (persons) 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.”
It was this moral ideal which framed a Constitution that would make ours the freest nation on earth. It made America able to accommodate cultural differences and overcome the natural tendency to prejudice against the stranger.
This in turn unleashed the unprecedented energy and spirit of ingenuity that built an economy –and countless agricultural, medical and technological innovations-- that has lifted not only its own citizens, but those of many other nations, out of abject poverty.
Naturally none of this happened without bumps in the road. Negro slaves particularly, and every immigrant group to a degree, has had to fight for respect. But thanks to the unifying principle of the equality of persons under the natural law, America has always been the place where freedom eventually wins over prejudice.
You basically have a choice when you come here. You can whine about not being invited to the table, or you can pull up a seat. Americans always respect those who pull up a seat.
Pope John Paul the Great, speaking admiringly of our nation, once told the American Ambassador to the Holy See:
“Reading the founding documents of the United States, one has to be impressed by the concept of freedom they enshrine: a freedom designed to enable people to fulfill their duties and responsibilities toward the family and toward the common good of the community. Their authors clearly understood that there could be no true freedom without moral responsibility and accountability, and no happiness without respect and support for the natural units or groupings through which people exist, develop, and seek the higher purposes of life in concert with others.”
But the very principle that made our nation great is also the source of its fragility.
How so? You can’t really cease to be French or stop being Italian.
But you can cease to believe in an ideal.
John Paul II warned: “The American democratic experiment has been successful in many ways. Millions of people around the world look to the United States as a model in their search for freedom, dignity, and prosperity. But the continuing success of American democracy depends on the degree to which each new generation, native-born and immigrant, makes its own the moral truths on which the Founding Fathers staked the future of your Republic.”
Archbishop Charles Chaput of Philadelphia picks up this idea in his new e-book, A Heart on Fire: Catholic Witness and the Next America: “The Constitution…(is) just another elegant scrap of paper unless people keep it alive with their convictions and lived witness.”
While enumerating examples of the decay of our culture’s commitment to First Amendment freedoms, the Archbishop notes the sterility of whining about it.
“Listing problems and then complaining about them achieves very little,” he writes. “Moreover, it’s not a Christian response.”
It’s not an American response, either. Listen to our folk tales and folk music and see and hear the American character embodied, especially its sense of humor and pluck in the face of great hardships. Surely the descendants of the men and women who braved the winters at Valley Forge and rode the wagon trains West and fought our wars can handle a little national moral debate!
Archbishop Chaput says: “If Jesus tells us to be leaven in the world …– and of course he does—then we have missionary obligations. And those duties include the renewal of our country’s best ideals.”
* Catholic News Agency columns are opinion and do not necessarily express the perspective of the agency.