[Thomas Moore, “True patriots help America fulfill the dream” Charlotte Observer (07/08/03): 11A]

“I’m proud to be an American, where at least I know I’m free. And I won’t forget the men who died, who gave that right to me. And I’d gladly stand up next to you and defend her still today. ’Cause there ain’t no doubt I love this land — God bless the U.S.A.” — Lee Greenwood

People are sometimes surprised I like this very familiar song. It’s often associated with social conservatives, of which I’m not one, and I wish Greenwood had written “people who died” to recognize women who sacrificed themselves for our country. But I like the song for its patriotism. I just view patriotism as a much more challenging concept than enjoying fireworks and waving flags on Independence Day. Patriotism means supporting our nation as she tries to fulfill the ideals upon which she is based, such as liberty and justice for all. When we ask God to bless the U.S.A., we are asking for a blessing for every person who resides in this country, not only the ones we especially like. When we sing, “I’m proud to be an American,” we are saying, “I’m proud to be connected to these people, my fellow Americans — Muslim, Christian and Jew, heterosexual and homosexual, old and young.” It’s one nation, under God, indivisible.

Being a patriotic American requires me to hold certain values and act upon them. I must support the great American institution of public education, knowing that democracy works only with an educated populace. I have to be open to other perspectives and people who are different from me. I will show respect to my president and all state and local leaders, even if I disagree with their policies. I will promote opportunity for all and encourage communities to work together. See why I think patriotism is so challenging?

I learned these principles a long time ago in the segregated Gastonia where I grew up, and as a member of the Charlotte-based Sounds of America, a regional, integrated choir I joined at age 16. I’ve tried to live them ever since. The 4th of July was a big deal in my community. I saw older men tear up as they sang about their love of our land. Our family and neighbors would relax at picnics and parades, which typically included a prayer for the U.S. president. Then I’d leave for Charlotte or a military base to perform with the choir. Originally called Sing Out, Dixie, this choir’s high school and college students were regional stars.

If something big happened in Charlotte, we were there. We sang at public events, especially on the 4th of July. I glanced around during one of those holiday performances, taking in my colleagues dressed, like me, in red, white and blue. Those colors told me we were all connected. No matter our race or background, we all had something in common — our country and the ideals symbolized in our flag. I returned home to my all-black neighborhood believing that friendship and unity were worthy goals.

I think America is still on that journey and always will be. We are very gradually becoming the nation our founding fathers described. It has not been easy. I’m not so naive to believe everyone is happy about what I see as progress. Nor do I believe prejudice is limited to Caucasians. But I do think we are closer today to fulfilling the vision in the Declaration of Independence: “We hold these truths to be self evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” The recent U.S. Supreme Court decision giving gay couples the same right to privacy as straight couples is an example. Another is the court’s support for affirmative action in higher education, which will help make that experience more open to all.

We’re learning about and even adopting the cultures and styles of other Americans — witness the African American girl with blonde hair, or her white friend with cornrows. All this is good. But individual choices, one after another, are as powerful as any judicial decision. That’s why I periodically ask myself if I’m doing all I can to help America become the nation she was intended to be. It’s a pretty lofty question, especially before my first cup of coffee in the morning. But as a religious man and a patriotic American, I think it’s my obligation to ask from time to time. My actions in response are a kind of prayer, another way of asking God to bless the U.S.A.

Thomas Moore, Ph.D is a keynote speaker, workshop leader, early childhood consultant, and children’s recording artist. He is author of Gryphon House award-winning teacher resource books “Where is Thumbkin?” and “Do You Know the Muffin Man?”. He is contributing author of Wright Group/McGraw-Hill’s curriculum, DLM Early Childhood Express and author of their literacy series “Music, Movement and More”. He has also produced ten recordings for children.