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By Richard F. Keevey
We know the significance of the famous words of our Declaration of Independence “We hold these truths to be self-evident that all men are created equal…” Fifty-six brave men affixed their signature to this document and pledged their lives, their fortunes and their sacred honor for the success of this great endeavor.
Many of us will celebrate with parades, barbecues and fireworks. But, all Americans also need to reflect what these words meant then and today. We are fortunate to live in America and we must remember the sacrifices that our soldiers, diplomats and aid workers did for us over these many years and continue to do.
Recently, my wife and I celebrated a significant event in American history — an event that reinforces all that is good in America. Two days before the 70th anniversary celebration of D-Day, we visited the beaches of Normandy. We walked Omaha beach; we ‘occupied’ the German bunkers; and we visited the American cemetery. Nothing could be more moving as we stood where courageous Americans and our allies began the end of the brutality of Nazism — and where they are buried.
The French people were wonderful and obviously quite appreciative of what America had done – we really enjoyed this experience and their country. But, we were happy to return to our shores – because America is our home — and one always wishes to return home, especially to celebrate a birthday.
Our country has shortcomings but we still remain the beacon for the world. More importantly, we are much more than a country that fought two world wars in Europe and the Pacific ‘to save democracy.’ Consider, for example, these two critical hallmarks that set us aside from all other nations:
We were the first nation to truly separate church and state. Today, some argue that we should not have done this — but they would be wrong. Our separation doctrine does not mean that we were against religion. It means that our secularity has a much deeper meaning. Just look around the world today — and in history past — and one can see that separation of church and state is truly critical to our form of democracy and to individual religious beliefs.
We became the first universal nation. No nation has ever invited such a diverse group of peoples into its way of life – and promised equality. Yes, we have stumbled and still do, but our principles are strong and even when blind prejudice raises its head, we have succeeded. Our Declaration of Independence said it all — and our Constitution with some critical amendments — embedded our unique inclusiveness into the fabric of our society. Trite as its sounds we still welcome the “huddled masses’ to our shores.
There were many challenges as we struggled through two centuries – not to recognize these contradictions would be a mistake.
Bigotry, racism and religious fanaticism were false idols — but we addressed them. It took 200 years of growing pains, for example, to more fully accept the African-American. The “I have a Dream” speech enabled us to overcome these temporary detours – but as a nation we know that more can be done.
We ‘saved’ the world from two evil philosophies that sought to enslave nations and peoples. But, we stumbled badly in Vietnam and Iraq because we did not understand the complexity of other societies or because we did not carefully consider the alternatives. We need to keep these mistakes in mind as we move through the upcoming perilous years.
As we viewed the Normandy beaches and cemeteries we knew we were citizens of a noble nation. We are still on a journey to deepen further our heritage, but I know we will always be a bulwark against tyranny and oppression. I am very happy to be an American and live in America on its 238th birthday – there is no place like home.
Rich Keevey is a Senior Fellow at the Bloustein School of Planning and Policy at Rutgers University and a lecturer at the Woodrow Wilson School, Princeton University. He was the Budget Director & Comptroller for New Jersey and the Deputy under Secretary of Defense for Finance. He also served as the Executive Officer of an artillery nuclear missile battery in Western Europe.