When we share an experience, we know what things mean. That key on the wall, that stain on the rug; if we were both there at the right time, we know their story. They have become symbols of something far deeper, and a word or a wink will be enough to bring a rich picture into both of our minds.
For a long time in this country we were living in the same story. We knew what things meant. That face, that photograph, that flag; we may not have responded to them in quite the same way but we knew what they meant; how they fit into our shared story. And, though we may not have given this much thought, ours is a unique story. Day after day, for most of our 240 years, we have lived in relative freedom and peace with a shared vision of what is good. We have frequently failed to live according to that vision, but through the offices of our rules and our conscience, we have largely agreed that the vision remains good and that our departures from it are bad.
For the most part, we liked each other; saw the other guy – for all his faults – as someone a lot like us. There was the occasional villain but his successes, if any, were lonely; in his better moments he might condemn his own behavior.
But somehow, things have changed. We disagree in our answers to the most basic questions of life. We debate with rage rather than reason. Our shared vision is unraveling. We are no longer living in the same story.
We have frequently disagreed about important things; that is not the part that has changed.
Here is what has changed: There was a story behind our story, and it went like this: “We are created equal”. Four small words upon which everything we have loved about America rests.
The Declaration of Independence claims that all people are “endowed by their Creator” with rights which supersede, even, the claims of the new government that was being established. It is very strange — and seems especially so in 2016 — but without the story of the Creator, there is no story of America.
America begins with the idea that every life was intended, a treasure to be safeguarded and for which we must give an account. We may vehemently disagree with one another, but we remember that the other guy’s life is precious.
But now, the story of the Creator seems unsustainable, at least as anything more than a polite fiction. We explain the curious fact of our existence by saying that one miraculous thing changed over time into another miraculous thing, as if by that we had explained how it is that there are any miraculous things, or — equally mysterious — a place in the universe where such things could survive.
Without a Creator, we are not created. Not intended. Not meaningful. Not inherently important. We, who wanted more dignity than the old story allowed us, now have infinitely less. We have devolved into raw material, as seen by the growing market for baby body parts and – far more – by the fact that few people seem to care very much that such a market exists.
Our behavior follows our ideas: we now scream in one another’s face and try to hurt those who disagree. Does the other guy’s life have value? Only if it pleases me.
We used to like each other because, at some level, we believed that every life is important; that we were part of the same story; that by treating other people well we participate in something that the story behind our story calls love, a force that covers over our many differences and enables us to live together in peace and freedom.
Perhaps our nation’s founders were wrong to base their independence on the idea that our dignity and rights derive from a Creator and not from the government. Perhaps, but it seems that, having abandoned that idea, we are quickly losing what made America beautiful.