We’re just a couple of days away from the Fourth of July here in the United States, and the approaching day have given me occasion to reflect on a line from poet Christian Wiman that I have quoted before in this space: “A culture, too, is a work of imagination.” Imagination–the kind of imagination we need–isn’t so much a matter of seeing things that aren’t real as a matter of seeing things that are truer and more real than the status quo.
Before it was a country, America was an idea, and one of the best ideas human beings have ever conceived. True, our founders weren’t always true to their best ideas, and in the intervening centuries the rest of us have failed in all sorts of ways to give those ideas a local habitation and a name. But in spite of all, we have never shown those ideas to be false. Everybody is created equal; that truth is as self-evident as it has ever been. Also self-evident: we have are endowed by our Creator with inalienable rights. Good governments secure those rights, but they don’t grant those rights. Perhaps it goes without saying, but I will say it anyway: these are universal, not specifically American claims. Our founders made these claims on behalf of the world.
It has been said that there is nothing wrong with America that can’t be fixed by what is right with America. I find it this harder than ever to believe…and yet I do believe it. This experiment in human dignity isn’t over. America is a work of imagination–not wishful thinking, but an earnest conviction that the things we see with our eyeballs aren’t the truest things, that a realistic view of the world requires that we take into account more than the status quo.
America’s greatness lies not in our military might or our wealth or our resources or our ingenuity. Our greatness lies in the greatness of our organizing ideas: human equality, human dignity, inalienable rights. Alexis de Tocqueville (supposedly*) wrote, “America is great because she is good, and if America ever ceases to be good, she will cease to be great.” Does that sound hopelessly idealistic, even naive, given our failures to live up to our own ideas? I don’t think so. I hope not, anyway. I do believe this: any attempt at American greatness is doomed to failure if it doesn’t aim first at goodness. That is to say, the mere exercise of power isn’t going to make America great. I hope I’m stating the obvious here, but I may not be.
I’ll wrap up with a few lines from Richard Wilbur’s poem, “On Freedom’s Ground”:
Praise to this land for our power to change it,
To confess our misdoings, to mend what we can,
To learn what we mean and to make it the law,
To become what we said we were going to be.
My fellow Americans, may we all have the love and the courage to keep to the old roads and become what we said we were going to be.
* I checked, and it appears that this quotation doesn’t come from Alexis de Tocqueville after all. That’s a shame, because it’s a good one.