What is it to be an American? What is it that defines us as American? Is it our popular culture?
American popular culture is spreading across the globe like a weed. In fact, many people see it as exactly that, a weed. Who are the best known Americans in the world today? Michael Jackson, Britney Spears and George W Bush. It's no wonder that we are seen as depraved and decadent.
What is it to be an American?
America is a nation of immigrants. We have members of our own club who were not born in America. My wife's family were Mennonites, a German Christian sect that came here through Russia about 125 years ago.
My own ancestor, one Matthias Button, came here in the year 1628, from England, as one of the early settlers of the Massechussets colony. He was the 2nd son in his family and as such, was to inherit nothing. It was a time when the first born son got everything and everybody else got nothing. So Matthias set forth on a journey to America to create his future.
In the period from 1600 - 1900, most of the immigrants to America came from Europe - Ireland, Scotland, Germany, Sweden, Italy. A sizeable portion came from Africa as slaves. It's my impression that today, the majority of immigrants to America come from Latin America, China, India and Africa. With the exception of the slaves, they all have one thing in common. They all came to America seeking opportunity and a better life.
So what does that mean? To seek opportunity and a better life? What is life like where they came from? What is so much better here that someone would leave their family, their community and their culture behind forever?
I haven't travelled all that much. The only other countries I've ever visited were England, Scotland and Japan. The one thing that struck me about those places was the distinct, ancient character of those cultures and how structured they were.
In Japan, if you are not Japanese, you will forever and always be a foreigner. Live and work there 30 years, speak, read and write Japanese fluently, without an accent, marry someone Japanese and raise your children there, and you will still be a foreigner. If you are American and you go to live in England or Scotland, no matter how long you live there, you will still always be an American. Sure you may make many friends, work at a job, pay taxes and raise your family there. But you'll still always be an American.
But if you come to live in America, you can become an American simply because you choose to. Even if you have a thick accent, or clearly understand American grammer, if you become an American citizen, vote and concern yourself with the issues of the day, then you are as American as any.
But then, what is it to be an American?
The Founding Fathers of the United States created a totally new form of government. They drew their inspiration from the Greeks and Romans, but democracy as they designed it, was a truly new form of government. Even then, only men who owned land, could vote in elections. The American form of government was never intended to be an effective form of government, or even a good form of government. Our form of government was primarily designed to prevent tyranny. It was designed to not allow any one person or group of people to gain too much power.
The other fundamental principle of our form of government was the separation of church and state. The Founding Fathers believed that while faith in God was essential to moral character and civilization, that it was beyond the ability of men to agree upon what that faith was and to have it as part of their government. Religion has been the source of wars for centuries. By removing religion from government, the Founding Fathers removed one of the most likely sources of potential tyranny. The secular nature of the American government is one of the cornerstones of the Republic. By separating government from matters of spirit, each person is free to follow their own spiritual path. Through history many of the people who came to America did so to find the freedom to pursue their own spiritual path.
What is it to be an American?
From the beginning of European settlement in America, slave labor was used to work the land. Because the slaves were of a race of men so very distinct and different from the white Europeans, it was assumed that they were an inferior breed worthy only of consideration as property. Slave labor was also the backbone of the plantation economic system in the American South prior to our Civil War.
At the beginning of our Republic, the Founding Fathers realized that the issue of slavery would have to be resolved and were fearful of what that might mean. The abolishment of slavery would mean the wholesale alteration of the economic structure of the Southern states. The landed slave owners were also the economic and political power of the Southern states, and they were not about to give up that wealth and power simply because others felt that slavery was wrong.
Their refusal to consider the question of slavery eventually led them to rebel and declare their secession from the Union, which in turn prompted the Federal government to take action to prevent the country from splitting in two. The American Civil war claimed more lives, as a percentage of population, than any other war in the history of mankind. Consider that the weapons of the day only consisted of muskets, bayonets, swords and cannon. Killing was done hand to hand, brother against brother, father against son. More men died of illness in camp than actually died on the battlefield.
The subjugation of one class by another is a story as old as humanity itself. Throughout all of history, only America has fought and shed blood to resolve this question. The battle is still being fought today.
What is it to be an American?
I submit to you that to be an American, one is part of an historic movement by human beings to realize that which is common to all of us. That while we are Asian, European, African or aboriginal native, we are in this world together, and that together we are stronger and greater than we are alone.
I submit to you that to be an American, you are part of a collective effort to create a new society based upon the effort and merit of the individual, not upon the accident of one's social status at birth.
Barak Obama spoke at the Democratic National convention last night. His father was a Kenyan goat herder and his mother was the daughter of a Kansas farm worker. He graduated from Harvard and is the Democratic candidate for the US Senate seat in Illinois. He said, "I stand here knowing that my story is part of the larger American story... and in no other country on Earth is my story even possible."
I submit to you that to be an American, that by example, you are showing the rest of humankind what the future holds. That our future is one of the celebration of our distinctiveness and of our common humanity.
I submit to you that to be an American, you not only have the right to be free to create your own destiny and your own path of purpose, but you also have the responsibility to insure that this right is guaranteed for all. For without the guarantee of respect and freedom for all, there is no guarantee of freedom and respect for any of us.