Can America be Great – Given Our Present State of Goodness?

The old adage that, “America is great because America is good,” is as true an aspiration today as it was when it was first uttered.

In a speech given by President Ronald Reagan on 25 July, 1986, Reagan repeated that line, adding, “And if America ever stops being good, America will stop being great.”

He was/is right, as he was regarding numerous things. America will stop being great, when our goodness wanes. However, he was incorrect regarding the source of the quote.

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Before I proceed further, allow me to clarify something about the above “old adage.”

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Time for some fun with facts: In his speech to the American Legion Boy’s Nation, Reagan attributed the oft-repeated line to the French diplomat and historian, Alexis de Tocqueville. Eisenhower did also – on three separate occasions, as did Clinton, Pat Buchanan and many others. Problem is – the “adage” is not found in any of Tocqueville’s writings. Not in “The Old Regime and the Revolution”, nor in his seminal writing, “Democracy in America.”

Although many Presidents and politicians have repeated the phrase and attribution, the saying can only be traced back to a Presbyterian minister named John McDowell. He used the phrase in a 1922 sermon in New York. For whatever reason, he wrongly attributed the phrase to Tocqueville and I guess it stuck. From then on, it was a matter of nobody bothering to check. Now you know…the rest of the story – Good Day. (h/t: Paul Harvey)

Getting back to our greatness vs. goodness – Reagan was dead-on right. And this is America’s great dichotomy. Many times a month we can find accounts of Americans’ selflessly helping other Americans – Americans helping people in far-away lands – demonstrating our goodness.

We are always the first to assist others, either through our labors or our dollars. From the time of our founding we have remained a good people, filled with good will and charity for others, without asking for anything in return.

And herein lies the bifurcation. While the American people have, for the most part, remained on the path of goodness, those who claim to represent and reflect us have chosen to branch off on a different path. And clearly, theirs is not a path of good.

The politicians we elect to public service betray us, succumbing to their baser instincts. Another old adage, that “Power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely,” attributed to Sir John Emerich Edward Dalberg Acton, is being played out right in front of us. They lie, cheat, steal and philander.

Some would say that it is the position they hold or the environment they work, that causes them to stray from goodness. I disagree. Although I have jokingly said that Washington D.C. is so corrupt, it could turn Jesus to the darkside, I believe these individuals have a predisposition toward immorality, dishonor and corruption. The absolute power of Washington merely magnifies these traits.

The same can be said of the Hollywood icons we imprudently place on pedestals. They too have the same predisposition, which again is magnified by the power they wield in Hollywood.

So where does this leave us? Erick Erickson recently wrote that “politics is reflecting culture. Culture is not reflecting politics.” Is this true? Have we really fallen so far that we look in a mirror, metaphorically speaking, and see, not ourselves, but John Conyers, Al Franken or Harvey Weinstein?

I shudder to think that this is true, for if so, no amount of slogans can Make America Great Again. However, this may be the watershed moment in time that historians look back and conclude as America’s attempt to regain our goodness, by throwing off the demons among us.

Only time will tell, but let’s hope it is the latter, not the former.

So I leave you with food for thought, from Robert Charles Winthrop, Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives, 1847-1849: “Men, in a word, must necessarily be controlled either by a power within them or by a power without them; either by the Word of God or by the strong arm of man…”

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