How America Can Be Great

The terrible events of Sept. 11 have swept away many misconceptions we might have had about America. With those misconceptions out of the way, America has the opportunity to be truly great.

Before Sept. 11, some thought America was great because of her military might. But then half a dozen men with box cutters blew a hole in the Pentagon.

Before Sept 11, America's economy seemed to be her strength. Then a small band of killers brought Wall Street to its knees.

Many of us thought God had been banned forever from our public squares and our private conversations. But after Sept. 11, the U.S. House became a house of prayer, alternative-rock radio stations began playing “God Bless America,” and the pledge of allegiance returned to many schools, with God's name left in.

Before Sept. 11, many of us defined America by its moral decadence. We pointed out that pornography was the biggest Internet moneymaker, abandonment of women the biggest cause of poverty, abortion a common form of birth control, and child sexual abuse at an all-time high.

After Sept. 11, we know there's more to the story.

We heard about officers who rushed into buildings that they knew would collapse. We learned of Trade Center workers who slowed their own escapes by carrying out the handicapped or those in shock. We heard of death-defying rescues at the Pentagon. We learned of passengers who likely spent their last moments on earth aiming a plane at the ground so that it would kill only themselves. Now, a previously presumed lost generation is volunteering at military recruitment offices to risk their lives for their country, for us.

If love's ultimate test is to lay down one's life for one's neighbor, then Sept. 11 taught us that hiding in many ordinary Americans is the greatest possible love. Even those who are critics of America can find a great new hope in that.

In 1776, America was the first nation in history to organize itself around principles rather than powers. When our Founding Fathers signed the Declaration of Independence, they pledged their “lives, fortunes and sacred honor” not for material things, but for moral truths. They proclaimed that everyone had the same God-given dignity, and the same rights to life, liberty and happiness. And they suffered for those beliefs. Generations of immigrant and native-born citizens who followed made the same commitment, and paid the same price.

If we thought America's founding vision was lost, we forgot something important. These high ideals have always lived side-by-side with great failings in Americans, from the slave-owners who fought the War of Independence to the segregationists who fought World War II.

That's because Americans seem to know deep down that it is our moral standards that make us great, even if we fail to live up to them. Times of crisis tend to reawaken our best selves and renew our country.

All the same, we have to be careful. There is no guarantee that America will be great. Abraham Lincoln, for instance, said that America had to suffer the Civil War to atone for slavery. What would he say about her embrace today of something so heinous as abortion?

We should pray that Americans will make the right decisions in the months and years ahead—in this war and in our domestic life. But we pray this now with confidence, because we've seen what our countrymen are capable of.

Mother Teresa, at the 1994 National Prayer Breakfast, urged Americans to live up to their heritage—by loving. Not just by heroic love, but by ordinary love. By deciding that in America “no child will be unwanted, unloved, uncared for, or killed and thrown away.”

“Then,” she said, “you will really be true to what the founders of this country stood for.”