Memorial Day was created to commemorate the men and women who died serving our country. The numbers are sobering: Eight thousand soldiers died in combat during the Revolutionary War; 53,402 died during World War I; 291,557 in World War II; 33,746 in Korea; and 47,355 in Vietnam – just to name the wars everyone remembers. So far, we have lost 3,352 men and women in combat in Iraq and 2,227 in Afghanistan.
While we honor their memories, in truth there is little we can say about them that matters – no amount of speeches, flowers, or parades can honor them as they deserve to be honored. The only way to do that is to live the values they died for.
In this context and at this time, when we mourn the loss of some of our best and brightest and celebrate their sacrifice, it is worth remembering the values they sanctified with their lives, why our nation is unique in the history of the world, and – from the perspective of a veteran of the Vietnam War – what makes this country worth fighting for.
To oldest and probably best answer came from Alexis de Tocqueville. In 1831 in his book Democracy in America, De Tocqueville concluded spirituality and the desire for religious freedom was the “point of departure” for the entire American experience. He said, “It must never be forgotten that religion gave birth to Anglo-American society.”
While it has become less fashionable to talk about the role of religion in public life, its influence is constant and undeniable. Our Founding Fathers were deeply religious. The values they used to shape our society were founded on religious principles and, in particular, the Christian way of life.
Religion is of such importance in our lives that John Adams, our second President, concluded: “Our constitution was designed only for a moral and religious people. It is wholly inadequate for the government of any other.”
To de Tocqueville this relationship was as much practical as it was spiritual. He saw the faith of our fathers and the institutionalization of their beliefs in our democracy as part of the genius of America. “The Americans are fond of explaining almost all the actions of their lives by the principle of interest rightly understood,” he explained. “They show with complacency how an enlightened regard for themselves constantly prompts them to assist each other.”
The essence of America rests here – in the difference between saying, ‘I am my brother’s keeper’ and ‘I am my brother.’ It is the embodiment and actualization of the Golden Rule. In America when we are at our best, there is no “us” and “them.” There is only US.