When Will America Reclaim Its Soul?

Published: February 9, 2024

By Jim Lichtman
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I will return Friday.

“Individual faults and fragilities are no excuse to give in and no exemption from the common obligation to give of ourselves. Today, more than ever before, I believe that each of us as individuals must not only struggle to make a better world, but to make ourselves better, too….” – Senator Edward M. Kennedy, October 25, 1991

On September 9, 2011, hate and terror paid a visit.

Not long after two planes crashed into the World Trade Center in New York City, a third attacked the Pentagon, and a fourth – targeted for the White House – crashed in Shanksville, Pennsylvania, due to the heroic efforts of its passengers.

On that fateful day, America faced a crisis like no other. And yet, out of that hate and terror, the country pulled together and moved forward to heal and become stronger.

On January 6, 2020, our country’s Capitol was assaulted by lies and hate brought about by a former president. And we continue to pay a heavy price by bitter division.

In the midst of a crisis of conscience in 1950, Maine’s freshman Senator Margaret Chase Smith stood up against the fear and unreasoning brought about by populist Senator Joseph R. McCarthy. “I speak as a Republican,” Smith told her Senate colleagues, “I speak as a woman. I speak as a United States Senator. I speak as an American. …I don’t want to see the Republican Party ride to political victory on the four horsemen of calumny: fear, ignorance, bigotry, and smear.”

Where is that voice today? Where is the political courage and resoluteness from those who pretend to be leaders but are either silent or act as loyal followers of a populist demagogue who has demonstrated time and again that his only interest is in holding on to power and destroying the fundamentals of a great nation.

Today, more than any other time in more than 100 years, the country finds itself in the midst of an internal crisis that is a direct threat to America’s soul. And there appears little evidence of any individual or group with sufficient influence to move almost half the country from fanaticism to reason.

I wish I had an answer for the sickness that continues to eat away at America’s soul.

But let’s try.

Let’s try by revisiting the ethical values America has always cherished, and depended on during morally turbulent times, the values Senator Smith alluded to in her Senate speech: trustworthiness, respect, responsibility, justice & fairness, caring, civic virtue & citizenship.

Let’s try to be honest with ourselves and to each another.

Let’s try to elevate principle over self-interest and demonstrate the moral courage to stand up and be counted despite social, economic, or political pressures.

Let’s try to treat others with courtesy and civility and accept others’ beliefs and differences without prejudice.

Let’s try to demonstrate more responsibility, understanding that we must not only pursue happiness in our own lives, but also be accountable for our words and actions.

“All that is necessary for evil to triumph,” Edmund Burke observed, “is for good men to do nothing.” The 18th-century Irish statesman and philosopher reminds us that each of us has a duty to act as well as to refrain from improper acts.

Perhaps the most difficult of all ethical values, Justice & Fairness, requires us to apply open and impartial processes for gathering and evaluating information necessary to make decisions. Let’s strive to do that.

Let’s try to be more compassionate by abiding by The Golden Rule, to maximize the benefits and minimize harm to others.

The dual qualities of Civic Virtue & Citizenship recognize that each of us has a duty that extends beyond our self-interest to contribute to the public good in our community and our country.

Let’s try to adopt the ethical consciousness, commitment, and competency to live our lives in an honorable fashion. It doesn’t require us to be perfect, but rather that we should strive, “to make ourselves better,” as Edward Kennedy said.

Living an ethical life is not always easy, but let’s try, anyway.

“We are,” as historian David McCullough said in 2001, “still the strongest, most productive, wealthiest, the most creative, the most ingenious, the most generous nation in the world, with the greatest freedoms of any nation in the world, of any nation in all time. … We have [an] all-important, inexhaustible source of strength. And that source of strength is our story, our history, who we are, how we got to be where we are, and all we have been through, what we have achieved.”

And what we can achieve again, together, if we have the willingness to try.

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