In a discussion regarding world affairs with President Ronald Reagan, Margaret Thatcher, then the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, made a very deep comment on the difference between the United States and her country, and by extension all of Europe. She said words to this effect: “You must always remember that Europe is a product of history; the United States is a product of philosophy.”
It is because of the Enlightenment and its rational philosophy that the concept of government by the people and of the people with its elected representatives became the rallying point of our new country. God did not simply call the king (through the Divine Right of Kings) to govern, but to also recognize that the rights to self-government were given to the people. Hence Americans are not people of a certain ethnic history, but those who freely subscribe to this philosophical understanding of government and its practical consequences.
This is why to be Irish-American or Greek-American or Muslim-American is possible; it also makes integration into the American Experience much easier. How does an Italian or an Algerian or a German become French? To those born in France, he or she is permanently a foreigner. To take another example, there are other Asian people in Japan who are still not considered full-fledged Japanese since they do not share the ethnic heritage of those of pure Japanese descent.
In America, it is much simpler to be one of “us”. This may be the reason why American Muslims seem to fit into our culture more easily than in other countries; the public square in America is a very wide space. There is plenty of room to be both true to one’s own ethnic heritage and to be completely an American.
This also counts for the religious beliefs of each individual. While we may bemoan the secularist caste of much of our public thought, it is, for the most part, not militantly anti-religious; it is actually very good for religion. By not establishing one preferred set of spiritual beliefs, it gives freedom to multiple possibilities of moving in the spiritual realm. Of course, this makes possible a degree of relativism that says: it does not matter what your beliefs are, they are all paths to the same reality of God. While on one level that may be true, on another level we have to admit that there is only one true path to God and that it is possible that many beliefs are wrong and may not lead to God. However, there is no central agency to determine what is true and what is not. This is left up to the individual to ferret out on one’s own.
What our way of life does require is a set of what I would call civic virtues. While not religious, they are in accord with many religious traditions and are absolutely necessary for this form of life we call America to work. Honesty is important for both governors and the governed. Tolerance of viewpoints different than one’s own is a virtue if not taken to the extreme of a contradiction to basic truths. We are never to be tolerant of the killing of unborn human life, but we must take appropriate means of moral persuasion to correct this erroneous belief. Another civic virtue is the importance of education; in order to have informed voters, it is imperative that we have a free educational system (hopefully also free of prejudices) that helps to inform the citizens so they can make good decisions. Our missionary zeal in converting other nations to democracy often forgets the need for this virtue. Uninformed voters are easily manipulated into making some horrible choices!
A chief virtue that also needs to be present is the belief in the goodness of government that inspires men and women who want to serve the people through modes of governing. Cynicism in regard to our country and the ability and goodness of democracy can kill the very basis of our way of life. Part of the chaos in many nations is that the people have lost faith in their government. Once that happens, corruption begins to course through the nation and a living embodiment of faith in others becomes the corpse of failed promises. No one has, therefore, any respect for laws. A thriving black market develops and bribery becomes the medium of prosperity.
What I am saying is that these civic virtues (as well as many others) are indispensable to our way of life. To not be virtuous is dangerous to democracy. What we teach in Church is essential to the common good. Simply put: a virtuous person is a good American.