The economy is humming along at 3.1 percent annual growth. Unemployment is at its lowest level in 49 years. Violent crime is down 48 percent since 1993. ISIS and al Qaeda, though still dangerous, are a shell of what they once were. The threat posed by a rising China, though real, is simply not the existential threat posed by the Soviet Union and its vast global bloc of satellites. Yet a heavy cloud of uncertainty and unhappiness hangs over America.

Fifty-eight percent of Americans are “dissatisfied with the way things are going in the country.” A constant barrage of protests—seemingly everywhere, about seemingly everything—reveals an angry and deeply divided nation. Indeed, we are constantly reminded of our differences: We are divided into red and blue states, the “99 percent and the 1 percent,” Boomers and Xers, Millennials and “Centennials,” and a kaleidoscope of faiths and colors and ethnic groups. The examples of division and difference—and, sadly, the efforts to exploit and emphasize those differences—seem endless. It’s no surprise that more than 80 percent of Americans say the country is divided. (At least we can agree on that.)

America’s divisions and discontent are impacted by—and impacting—America’s politics. “We have always had fringe elements in our politics, but other than the Civil War, those things that bound us together have been stronger than the forces pulling us apart,” House Armed Services Committee Chairman Mac Thornberry recently observed. “The centrifugal forces now are quite strong…And make no mistake, there are those outside our borders who are ready, willing, and more able than they have ever been before to fuel and exploit those forces to our detriment.”

Thornberry adds, “We can handle Russia and China and North Korea,” before noting: “My concerns are mainly about us—the decisions we make or don’t make—even our ability to make a decision, which, of course, means our politics.” 

Thornberry understands that these divisions, pushed far enough and long enough, could lead to debilitating inertia at home—and open us up to dangerous threats from abroad.

A Virtuous Freedom

Despite all the divisions and labels, we are one people—at least we are supposed to be. Our national motto, after all, is E Pluribus Unum: “out of many, one.” If that phrase ceases to have meaning to Americans—if we fail to bridge the divides and rise above our differences—the 21st century will not be another American century. The challenge is to identify the common ground that the vast majority of Americans share—the values that bind us together—and then to promote those values in our civic life.

Values are a statement of what matters to a person or to a nation, and so they can be exclusive or subjective, which makes some people uncomfortable in an age awash in moral relativism. But there are core values that we Americans have historically embraced—and need to rediscover today.

Freedom is one of those values. America’s founding document was a declaration of independence arguing that each person has a right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. Yet Jefferson’s masterpiece wasn’t a license to do whatever feels good, or to impinge on another’s liberty, or to live a life of aimless leisure at someone else’s expense, or to make endless demands for rights without responsibilities. The Constitution—which begins with the phrase “We the people,” not “I the individual”—serves to clarify this truth.

In other words, the freedom that binds Americans is a virtuous freedom, a freedom that liberates the individual to worship and speak and peacefully assemble and pursue happiness under the rule of law. That’s the kind of freedom we should strive for as we continue to form a more perfect union in the 21st century.

Respect for Faith

Another core value that Americans have historically embraced is a respect for faith. Gallup reports that 92 percent of Americans believe in God—a stunning level of consensus for a country as diverse as ours. Yet given the central role faith has played in America’s development, it shouldn’t be particularly surprising. Any country where presidents lead prayer breakfasts, where legislative business begins with a chaplain praying, where the highest court gavels itself in with the refrain, “God save the United States and this Honorable Court,” where currency is emblazoned with the phrase “In God We Trust,” is anything but secular.

In designing our government, the Founders erected heavy bulwarks to safeguard religion from government: Article VI of the Constitution makes clear that “no religious test shall ever be required as a qualification to any office or public trust under the United States.” So, the government cannot demand that a person confess—or renounce—a certain faith in order to serve in the public sector. The First Amendment declares, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” So, America’s government is prohibited from creating or banning a religion.

In short, the Constitution set up a system designed to shield religion from government—not the other way around. The Constitution says nothing about a “wall of separation” preventing people of faith from influencing their government. That phrase is lifted out of a letter from Jefferson to the Baptist Association of Danbury, which wrote Jefferson with concerns that “what religious privileges we enjoy…we enjoy as favors granted, and not as inalienable rights; and these favors we receive at the expense of such degrading acknowledgments, as are inconsistent with the rights of freemen.”

In response, Jefferson explained, “I contemplate with sovereign reverence that act of the whole American people which declared that their legislature should ‘make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof,’ thus building a wall of separation between church and state.” He closed by reciprocating “your kind prayers for the protection and blessing of the common father and creator of man.”

We can glean three enduring lessons from this: 1) people of faith were trying to influence their government, and Jefferson had no problem with it, 2) Jefferson sided with the religious group rather than the government, and 3) Jefferson closed his letter with a prayer.

In Jefferson’s day, as in our own, it is not a particular faith that unites Americans, but rather our respect for faith. Respect for faith—religious liberty—helps support our free society. It is not the promotion or establishment of faith. Instead, it’s a constraining, humbling reminder that there is something bigger and more powerful than the individual or the government. We don’t have to worship on the same days or in the same ways to recognize this truth.

Respect for Each Other

That word “respect” represents a third core value upon which a healthy majority of Americans can agree—hopefully. We cannot bridge our differences if we cannot speak to and listen to one another. To survive and thrive, this Republic demands civility in its political discourse.

Shouting down and assaulting speakers on college campuses, walking out on people who hold different views than our own, disrupting congressional hearings with protest chants, targeting public officials for harassment, banning certain words, labeling fellow Americans as “evil”—these actions are not only uncivil; they are unhealthy for our Republic. The same goes for presidents calling the free press an “enemy of the people” (President Trump, circa 2018) or vowing to “punish” their political enemies (President Obama, circa 2010).

As Jefferson declared at a time when America’s politics was arguably more bitter than it is today, “Every difference of opinion is not a difference of principle.” We can hold strong views and defend them resolutely without engaging in political warfare. We can agree to disagree and even learn to disagree without being disagreeable. We can reason together and find common ground—but only if we choose civility and respect.

We have plenty of real enemies in this world, and they’re not the folks on the other side of the political aisle. Moreover, there’s real evil in the world, and the people who serve in government don’t deserve that label.

Great and Good

A fourth core value that’s essential to America’s unity and advancement in the 21st century is the belief in American exceptionalism—the belief in ourselves. Sadly, this core value is not as widely or openly accepted as it once was.

Conditioned to view patriotic sentiment as politically incorrect or old-fashioned, many Americans either dismiss American exceptionalism or downplay it. But no matter what Hollywood sells us, no matter what academia tells us, America is an exceptional place. Here are just few reasons why:

  • Name another nation where a refugee girl from Czechoslovakia could grow up to oversee her adopted country’s foreign policy, where an Afghan immigrant could rise to become his adopted country’s ambassador to the UN, where a Cuban or Taiwanese immigrant could serve in the president’s cabinet, where the son of a Turkish diplomat could become CEO of the world’s most ubiquitous company, where a kid could start out as a Soviet refugee, flee from the Red Army, survive the Nazis and World War II, and end up commanding the entire armed forces of his adopted home. These only-in-America stories truly could only happen in America.
  • What other nation’s founding document triggered a global freedom revolution? What other country tore itself apart to eradicate slavery? What country saved Europe from itself in 1917 and then, a generation later, saved the world from a second dark age? When those wars were over, America didn’t seize territory or haul away the spoils of war. Instead, Americans transformed Europe into a partnership of peace and prosperity, remade Germany and Japan into liberal democracies, and left behind constitutions guaranteeing free government.
  • After the war that rescued mankind, Americans put their security on the line for Europe and Asia, faced down Stalin and his successors for nearly half-a-century, and served as civilization’s first responder and last line of defense. No other country had both the will and capacity to shoulder this burden.Critics of American power may refuse to recognize America’s special role. But by turning to America when tsunamis swallow South Asia, genocide is let loose in Europe, famine and disease devour Africa, terror descends on the Middle East, or chaos overtakes some friendless and faraway land, they are tacitly conceding that America is, well, special.

The American people need to know that it’s alright to believe this, to recognize that we live in a great and good country. And that means we need to appreciate our history. “We've got to teach history based not on what's in fashion but what's important,” Reagan counseled, presciently adding: “If we forget what we did, we won't know who we are. I'm warning of an eradication of the American memory that could result, ultimately, in an erosion of the American spirit.”

Americans used to be taught that they lived in an exceptional country. We should return to that model. Yes, educators should teach about America’s flaws and failures, but they should also teach about America’s successes and achievements, its contributions to mankind, its selflessness and sacrifice. America is not perfect, but it is good. As such, we need not apologize for being proud of our nation.

America was great on January 20, 2017, and on January 20, 2009. President Trump didn’t make it great, and President Obama didn’t make it worthy of our pride. Our parents, grandparents and great-grandparents—and their parents, grandparents and great-grandparents—did that by practicing and passing down these core values. We should follow their example.

Alan W. Dowd is a senior fellow with the Sagamore Institute, where he heads the Center for America’s Purpose and authors the Project Fortress blog. Follow him on Twitter @alanwdowd.