These words in the preamble to our Constitution set out the major purpose for creating the United States of America–to bring the individual state republics into a closer union. Those words also became the mandate for Abraham Lincoln to preserve that union 75 years later.
But for many those words have an almost mystical meaning, a burden laid on us by the Founders to make the union better as time goes by. Most of my life I’ve believed in the inevitability of progress, that our nation and our society would become increasingly more humane, more decent, more expansive in spirit. That belief has been tested in recent years. In a way, for me at least, that test began with the assassination of John Kennedy. Since then, one thing or another has caused many of us to question whether the union can be made more perfect.
This Wednesday we commemorate the fiftieth anniversary of the Kennedy inaugural, an event that brought many of my generation into public service if for no other reason than to make a contribution to a nation that had been so good to us. Few today doubt that a climate of anger and hatred towards him had something to do with his assassination.
Perhaps it is our fate to always have that climate with us. But if it is our fate, we will make little progress toward a more perfect union. We still have not reached concurrence on the relationship between state and nation, on race, on our social and moral obligations to the poor, on differences of all kinds. But the deeper discord is the most troubling. That is the distrust bordering on hatred toward our fellow citizens. It is impossible to account for this, for the need on the part of some to turn disagreement into anger and hatred.
It does seem as if some very deep struggle is going on for the very soul of our union, of America itself. This struggle does lead to violence, as it did in the earlier era of civil rights. Until the struggle is resolved, until we find some way to get back to the idealism of making our country better by citizen service and participation, it is futile to think about the United States providing much international leadership. While we struggle over our own soul, we will not be able to demonstrate the moral authority to suggest direction for others.
In the meantime, I for one continue with this one belief: America is better than this.