Renewing America’s Promise


“What the American people want is very simple. They want an America as good as its promise.” Barbara Jordan

On July 4, 1776 – the Declaration of Independence was adopted as the foundational document of the United States of America, the culmination of many years of thought, dialogue, change and struggle.

Our country’s founders put their names and lives on the line to form a nation based on an original, revolutionary idea – that it is self-evident all people are created equal, that they are endowed by Nature’s God with certain inalienable rights, among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.

When Thomas Jefferson articulated the core philosophy of this new country he drew on ideals of individual liberty drawn from the Magna Carta, Enlightenment philosophers, the Iroquois Confederacy and others. He took current ideas in the hearts and minds of the American people and applied them to the present situation. He used his considerable intellect and imagination and gave substance to a new way of organizing ourselves as a society – as a democracy.

E pluribus unum. Out of many, one.

We scarcely realize today just how incredible this was. E pluribus unum was inconsistent with all previous human experience. “One over many” was the way things had always been. “Out of many, one” had no direct historical precedent. Democracy is creating common understanding among people – not one person or elite group deciding and telling others what to do – it is a sharing of ideas, power and responsibility.

America is the first nation founded on an idea, built on a foundation of belief.

Liberty, freedom, independence, democracy. These words are used somewhat interchangeably to describe the precious foundation of our country that connects us in a common bond of shared humanity.

There were many religious philosophies and sects in the colonies competing for power, position and souls and Jefferson deliberately avoided referencing any specific ideology. America is built on a spiritual foundation of the universal values that are the origin of all the world’s religions with reference to Nature’s God and natural law. The Declaration of Independence transcends religious particulars, uniting all citizens in a single covenant, securing freedom of and from religion.

By law, church and state are separate in America but, by tradition, religion and politics are interdependent. Religion shapes our values. Politics is the way you get things done in a democracy by guiding policy through discussion among various parts of a society and influencing decisions.

Democracy is an action word. It’s not something we have; it’s something we do. Our democracy is ever changing and the citizens participate as change makers.

When religious people are involved in guiding the values that shape public life through participating in the political process, the separation of church and state are not violated. Violation occurs when churches as institutions are partisan and advocate for a particular party or candidate.

The founders including Thomas Jefferson are now considered heroes but they were never saints. They were flawed human beings. We know they kept slaves and excluded women and all minorities while brilliantly proclaiming freedom and justice for all. We are continually working to reconcile these inconsistencies that have continued throughout our history.

There were powerful forces in conflict at the time of the founding which are struggling to tip the balance in their own favor. Should decision-making be limited to the wealthy elite or shared with the masses? Should benefits bestow to selected people or all people? What’s the correct balance between self-interest and the common good? Under what circumstances should government help people and when should people be expected to fend for themselves? Who wins and who loses?

If we forget our authentic history and the principles on which our nation was founded, we’re at the mercy of those who articulate it for us to achieve their own goals.

Our most respected leaders including Abraham Lincoln, Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. led from a position of values. They brought moral and religious intent to the resolution of political conflict.

Hundreds of thousands of grass roots activists are stepping forward to do whatever they can to renew the promise of democracy. There’s never been a time in our history when so many people are intensely, intelligently engaged in the political process.

Change must come from the grassroots. It is very difficult for Congress and the Legislature to make changes from within. We must help our elected representatives find solid moral ground and use their voices and positions to actively apply America’s core values to their work and help renew our vital democracy.

The promise of democracy has been frequently broken causing great pain and suffering. When the promise is kept wonderful things happen. Events of the past six years have put democracy in great peril and the need for renewal right now is critical! If we energetically, relentlessly, cooperatively and intentionally work to renew our democracy by restoring our core values, other serious issues will fall into place.

Our country cannot be great unless it is also good and includes everyone.

Democracy is a work in progress – never finished, never perfect, always hopeful, rooted in faith in principles, confidence in we the people and optimism for future generations. Our grandchildren are depending upon us and will hold us accountable.

Working together, we can believe again in America and renew the promise of democracy!

Phyllis Stenerson, Minneapolis, MN. is a long-time grassroots activist who publishes communication product expressing a progressive worldview. This commentary references The American Creed by Forrest Church, St. Martin’s Press, 2002.