The Fourth of July is nearly upon us. As always, we Americans will barbeque in our backyards, watch fireworks, and celebrate America. And there is much to celebrate.
We love this country, and with good reason.
Americans are informal and down-to-earth. We introduce ourselves by our first names to practically everyone. We say “hi” on elevators to people that we have never laid eyes on. We don’t like folks who put on airs. We are unfailingly helpful and friendly. And if you think everyone is like that, spend a few weeks in Europe.
We talk a lot about freedom in America, and we mostly mean it. Rich, poor, or in between, we are assertive about our rights and stubborn about our liberty.
We are also a patriotic bunch, and reasonably united, despite our diversity. In a world where tribal loyalties are reasserting themselves, we have no ties of blood to bind us together. But we have the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence, and the essential idealism and optimism of the American people.
There are two things about which I feel special pride.
The first is the way that America continually remakes herself. Great countries require periodic injections of new thinking and energy, and America is now rearranging herself before our very eyes, like a scrambled kaleidoscope.
The arrival of new immigrants is primarily responsible. Most come out of desperation, but they learn our ways with startling speed, and then, like others before them, they reshape America.
Last year a pipe burst in my home on a weekend and the shut-off valve did not work. With water pouring onto the kitchen floor, I called the two plumbers that I have used for 30 years; both informed me that they no longer provide emergency service. I grabbed the phone book and started calling plumbers; on the third try, I reached someone who said they would be there in 10 minutes. Two Hispanic men with heavy accents arrived, stopped the flow of water, did the repair, cleaned up the area, and charged a reasonable fee for their service. These immigrants saved my home.
And then there is the family of Asian immigrants that runs a fruit and vegetable store in my neighborhood. The produce is better quality than in the supermarket, the prices are lower, and the store is open every day, from early morning to late at night. And of course there are the immigrant nannies that care for so many children in my area.
It distresses me when I hear the strident sounds of ugly nativism from our politicians, directed against both legal and illegal immigrants, children and adults. Yes, the issues are complicated, but much of what they are saying is simply old-fashioned mean-spiritedness. And in trying to reserve America only for those already here, they will only strangle her spirit. Most Americans, I am convinced, want a more inclusive America. They know that there is room here for immigrants; and they know too that the invitation extended on the Statue of Liberty to all those “who yearn to breathe free” is an expression of who we really are.
The second thing of which I am especially proud is America’s exuberant religiosity. The talk of religious decline is mostly nonsense. American religion is constantly reinventing itself, but our country remains a place of deep spiritual energy. Four out of five Americans identify with a religious denomination; and of the 20% who don’t, more than half believe in God. In the industrialized West, no other country comes close to this level of religious engagement.
Religion thrives for many reasons. The Founding Fathers knew that separating church from state would promote religious commitment. And Americans are wise enough not to banish religion entirely from the public sphere; America pays for military chaplains, gives tax exemptions to places of worship, and allows occasional ceremonial prayer. Most important, Americans understand that religion provides an anchor of stability in uncertain times, and that when a people lose faith in God, it often means they have lost faith in their country and in themselves.
Sure, there is plenty to worry about. Our infrastructure is falling apart, and inequality is much greater than it was. And in dealing with all of this, our politics seem both petty and paralyzed.
But it would be a mistake to romanticize earlier eras. Those was no time in America’s past when harmony reigned. And the reason is that our raucous democracy invites contentiousness. Our task, then, is to accept controversy and do what Americans have always done: Battle for our values, and fight to fill the moral void in our land. But, at the same time, reach out to our fellow citizens, strive for mutual respect, and try to articulate political concerns that will draw us together as Americans at least some of the time.
Happy July 4th.
Rabbi Eric H. Yoffie, a writer and lecturer, was President of the Union for Reform Judaism from 1996 to 2012. His writings are collected at ericyoffie.com.