I lay my head back against my dad's knee and take in the smattering of red, white and blue fireworks covering the navy summer sky, feeling the reverberations of the explosions in my bare feet. The taste of homemade vanilla ice cream lingers in my mouth, and I can smell the sweet honeysuckle aroma that convinces me that no one in the world is as lucky as me in this moment.
The celebration of our nation's independence is indeed a glorious day, often filled with some of summer's finest gifts: family, relaxation, cookouts, whiffle ball, free fireworks displays, sparkler races, lightning bugs and — of course — ice cream. But with the festivities ought to come a good, hard reflection on the state of democracy, and this year, we may not like what we see.
It's true that the Fourth of July might be an unpopular holiday in today's political climate, where everywhere we turn we see sexist tweets, the slashing of benefits for the poor and elderly, families being separated, hate crimes being perpetrated at an alarming rate, polarization that rivals any we've seen throughout history, and even petty Facebook fights that devolve into true loss of friendship.
These days it's almost as if patriotism is political; the flag is used as a means to an end, and even military service is often treated as having political connotations. We polarize the Pledge of Allegiance and the national anthem, and we easily forget the battles fought to bring the freedoms lauded in those words to fruition. Loving America is, frankly, out of vogue.
It's easy to neglect to appreciate what's right with America and acknowledge that democracy is indeed a beautiful and difficult struggle.
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I lived in Nicaragua for a summer during college, and, ironically, it was there that I learned my most valuable lessons about the United States. My delegation met with Nicaraguan university students during our first week of the trip. We were tasked with making a list of the things we love most about our home countries. Instead of focusing on the many areas where our governments had failed, we started by remembering the things that make us proud to be Americans and Nicaraguans, respectively. It was a beautiful and humbling conversation to have with people whom we'd just met and who had welcomed us into their homes.
That's not to say that we forgot the scars of our history, or chose the rose-colored glasses of young-adult naivety, but rather that we chose, for a moment, to celebrate what's worth celebrating.
In that spirit, I would like to share just a few of my favorite things about the United States of America, the things that make me proud to be American:
Diversity: One of the beauties of this country is that the immigrant experience is inextricably woven into the fabric of our nation. All corners of the world have lent the gift of their people to make America the melting pot of diversity that makes us so unique. Living in a city, you can often hear several languages in a single walk down the street, and with that exceptional diversity also comes the benefits of varied worldviews, opinions, cultural traditions and, of course, delicious foods. We have the privilege of learning from one another.
National parks: With wildlife and biodiversity disappearing rapidly as populations expand, what a gift it is that we have even more preserved areas than we have states in our nation. The natural beauty of mountains, prairies, beaches and forests, protected by law for appreciation by current and future generations, is a testament to the glory of God and the soul-healing blessing of creation.
Public libraries: One of the greatest opportunities of living in a free country is the chance to educate and better yourself. That there exist libraries where a person doesn't have to pay to read books, use a computer, or take English as a Second Language classes is an incredible service to this nation's people.
Freedom of speech: Sometimes this freedom makes me mad. It's hard to listen to people spew ideas with which I vehemently disagree, ideas that seem to be contrary to the good of humanity, but that's also the beauty of it: I too get to share my thoughts and opinions, and the free exchange of ideas is perpetuated. We have the space to hear one another and to protest, write, march and sing. Together, we build a democracy that represents the best of our ideas, a democracy that is a product of the people who comprise it.
I polled my Facebook friends on what they're most proud of about this country. The answers I received included empathy for our neighbors, the chance to work hard and get ahead, communities coming together in the face of tragedy, public education, the Constitution and its legal protections, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and even jury duty.
Granted, there are very real and urgent issues plaguing our democracy today. As I write, senators are meeting behind closed doors, finding ways to appease each other in order to pass a health care bill that would be devastating for the poor and elderly, and bills are being passed that criminalize immigrants and separate families (I'm calling my representatives as soon as I'm finished with this article). But this Fourth of July, let's not forget to take a moment and deliberately love America enough to celebrate what's worth celebrating, and then go work to change what needs to be changed. Happy Fourth, everyone!
[Allison Walter is a high school theology teacher and track coach. She was formerly press secretary with Faith in Public Life and policy education associate with NETWORK Lobby in Washington, D.C. A graduate of Saint Louis University and a native of Kansas City, Walter believes in the power of faith to transform society.]
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