Let it be known openly that the Fourth of July is one of my favorite holidays. I love this country. I love what it stands for. I love the way that we celebrate it (family, fireworks, and food). I think my love for the country stems from my youth as I participated in Boy Scouts (which is a very patriotic organization) and studied history, government, and our constitution.
The idea of being an American by choice points to an important, and perhaps unintended truth: being American is not simply reducible to the happy accident of birth. Americans, both natural and naturalized, must be trained–they must be made.
Peter Schramm asked his father when they were moving to American why the family chose America. The reply:
“Because, son. We were born Americans, but in the wrong place.”
Dad, in his way, was saying that he understood America to be both a place and an idea at the same time. Fundamentally, it is a place that would embrace us if we could prove that we shared in the idea.
Because America is more than just a place, being an American citizen is different than being the citizen of any other country on earth.
Because ours is a bond of principle and not of blood, true American citizens are made and not born. This is why, odd as it may seem, we must all learn–those who are born here, and those who come here by choice–what it means to be an American.
In recent weeks, there has been much talk about immigration, but very little informed discussion about what it means to be an American–about what is necessary to make Americans. . . . I hear frequent conversations about failures in integration and assimilation, even among recent legal immigrants. This is not new. What is new is that America’s own natural citizens increasingly have forgotten what it means to be American. . . . If we no longer understand or believe in that which makes us Americans, then there is nothing substantive to assimilate into. We become many and diverse people who share a common place, rather than E Pluribus Unum.
. . . If government “of the people, by the people and for the people” is to endure, its endurance can only come from the devotion of Americans–born here and away–who have been so made.
The question remains – how can we make Americans? Dennis Prager talks about “the mother of American holidays, July Fourth, the day America was born” and suggests that we learn from the Jews who have transmitted their culture across millenia while we struggle to maintain ours over mere centuries.
Our national holidays were established to commemorate the most significant national events and individuals in our history; they now exist primarily to provide us with a day off. . . . National memory dies without national ritual. And without a national memory, a nation dies. That is the secret at the heart of the Jewish people’s survival that the American people must learn if they are to survive.
When Jews gather at the Passover Seder — and this is the most widely observed Jewish holiday — they recount the exodus from Egypt . . . as if it happened to them. In the words of the Passover Haggadah — the Passover Seder book — “every person is obligated to regard himself as if he himself left Egypt.” . . . That has to be the motto of the July Fourth Seder. We all have to retell the story in as much detail as possible and to regard ourselves as if we, no matter when we or our ancestors came to America — were present at the nation’s founding in 1776.
The Seder achieves the feat not only through detailed recitation of the story, but through engaging the interest of the youngest of those at the table (indeed, they are its primary focus), through special food, through song and through relevant prayer.
I think that the key lies in repetitive recitation. Scott has a personal Annual Liberty Pilgrimage to maintain his patriotic spirit. I have been flying my flag since before Memorial Day and I hope to make that a year-round reminder to my family that our nation is more to us than merely the place we happen to have been born. We must make our celebration of independence mean more than just family, fireworks, and food. Those things should engage the children, but lets make sure to tell them the meaning behind the floats and fireworks.
Can we imagine ourselves at the nations founding? Can we imagine ourselves leaving the old world behind, where nationality was a matter of geography rather than ideology, and coming to America where the ideals that bind us together are thicker than our past allegiance? If we can’t imagine that journey then we should probably work a little harder to make ourselves into true Americans.