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The Heart of the Matter: American Thanksgiving, 2005

This world matters. As if you could take part in the ruining of a world and somehow pass on to a higher plane, another life, or a better heaven.

What we do here--with each other, for each other, and to each other, while we live and breathe--matters, and it matters on its own terms, in its own time and across times, and regardless of any outside frame of reference, any theology, any law made by Nature or man.

By what right does any person say to another that his religion is consecrated, by default, within the American government? The principles of freedom are not exclusive to Christians, even though it was Christians who crystallized the ideas set forth in our founding documents. The ancient Greeks had democracy, and yet were not Christians; the ancient Romans had a republic, and yet were not Christians. The people of the world who love fairness and freedom do not have to be Christian to have that love. Being a good Christian can infuse a love of liberty and common law and the balance between the two--as it ought to. But so, too, can being a good Muslim, a good Jew, a good Mormon, a good Hindu, a good Buddhist, a good Deist, or a good Atheist. This is not a truth that many want to hear, but someone has to say it.

This world matters, and we had better start understanding that. We had better start behaving accordingly.

There is one and only one pledge of allegiance that is necessary for America, and it is a pledge to understand the wisdom of our fathers and mothers from centuries ago, who understood the importance of freedom of religion and freedom of expression outside of the government, because it is only outside of the tyranny--intentional or otherwise--of any governing body that true freedom can exist for these deeply personal matters. It takes an unshakably strong government to allow people to have their own deeply held beliefs and to freely talk about their own ideals, their visions of heaven and hell, and how God wants them to live in this world. An intolerant government is no government at all, but tyranny. A government is wise in direct proportion to the number of things it can keep its fingers out of, and it is fair and just in direct proportion to its absolute neutrality in matters of religion and speech.

It is a weak government that fights over a pledge of allegiance, much less needs one, and the fact that we had one for so many years only demonstrates our weakness or lack of understanding of who we are and where we came from. I bring this up not because the bickering over the pledge of allegiance is a vital matter, but because it shows how we do not understand what we stand for. If we do not understand ourselves, how then can we explain ourselves to the world? To the future?

We cannot. So we must relearn what has been forgotten.

Anyone who had studied world history and then American history wouldn't need to be reminded of how precious and rare what we have had for more than two centuries is. The real pledge that we must make is at the core of the founding American document. It still pulses, like the beating heart that it is. Its hallowed words mock what passes for allegiance in a Communist-fearing, mid-20th century America; it cuts to the heart of the matter, to the soul of Republican Democracy. Yes, you heard correctly: Republican Democracy. The truth this pledge speaks is for the ages to come and for the eras long since past, when people died perhaps wishing they had what we have. Or, perhaps they could not even conceive of the freedom and good fortune we were given centuries ago by the confluence of economy, geography, history, and philosophy. What we do, we do for them as much as we do for us and for those who follow us. This pledge of allegiance I speak of has words to live by, and to fight for, and to die for if necessary. The truth this pledge speaks shakes us to our very foundations--it is our very foundation. No true son or daughter of liberty could ever tire of hearing these words, and the world will not be truly sane until these words ring true for every man and woman the world over:

"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. - That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, - That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness."

Teach your children this. Engrave it on their minds. If you want to chant something, chant this. The 110 most powerful words ever put to paper in the history of man, put there by a slave-holding aristocrat with very human faults, who dared to dream of a better world and did his part--as many millions have done since then--to make the world a better place than he found it. It is our right to pursue our happiness and to govern ourselves, and we have the right to change our government if we so choose by our mutual consent.

Most people know the first half of this true pledge, but they are not taught the second half because that is a dangerous idea. But we know it to be true. You have to have both ideas to create a government of the people, by the people, and for the people. The right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness is necessary, but insufficient. Your right to freedom comes with the responsibility of making the government work, and if it doesn't, you have to start anew. Thomas Jefferson did both. George Washington did both. Alexander Hamilton and James Madison did both. Abraham Lincoln did both. Tens of millions of forgotten men and women did both. And we must all do both to protect the notion that it is we who are in charge of how we collectively inhabit this world.

It is all of us, collectively, who will answer to past and future generations of the world and whatever Creator may exist in the Universe. If God is not watching--as some secretly feel, some secretly fear, some secretly hope, some fervently deny, and some secretly deny--you can be certain that the people of Earth are watching. They will no doubt judge us--and rightly so. With or without a firm reliance on the protection of Divine Providence, we must nonetheless mutually pledge to each other our Lives, our Fortunes, and our sacred Honor to make this world as free and fair as can be done.

This world matters, and so does tolerance. Your freedom to believe what you believe is easy, but allowing that same freedom for others to believe what they believe is hard. Understand this: without tolerance, there can be no freedom.

Presuming to speak for God is a dangerous business, but I believe that this is what God would want us to understand. I smile as I say that, since I know I have no right to make this the belief of any other person on this planet, but I have the right to believe it myself and to say it aloud without any fear of persecution. I know this because I believe Jefferson, Hamilton, and Madison, the architects of the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, when they say I have that freedom. And they say I need not take that freedom, as if it were a gift presented to me or some bauble snatched away when no one was looking, because that freedom of speech and that freedom of religion has always been the natural state of things. I was endowed by my Creator. The countless millennia of oppression on this planet have been the unnatural state of things.

The irony is, of course, that such a religious argument does not strengthen the case I am making, but neither does it weaken it. It complements and compliments it. What I say that God would want for us--freedom and tolerance and responsibility--are exactly the same things people would eventually see we need to create and bestow on each other as history took its course, whether or not they believed in God. Any way you look at it, it comes to the same, as is always the case with real truths. Truth is truth, and this is as much so for the eternal truths embodied in the Ten Commandments as it is for the eternal truths in the Amendments to the Constitution. And this will someday be said for eternal truths yet unpenned in documents not yet written, documents that, I hope, will conjure an even better world out of the best ideas of the time.

So I say, "Thank God." Thank God that I live in a country that was founded on the principle that I am not required to thank God if I choose not to, or to believe in one God or another, or to believe in anything else except that we must be tolerant of others' freedoms, we must respect the laws of the land and, should we not respect them, we must accept the responsibility to try to change them. Thank God that I can thank God myself, in my own way, and truly thank God that I can do so with all of my heart, my mind, and my soul as I see fit. Thank God that we have evolved enough to conceive of a world where freedom can exist, where tolerance is what we practice, and where tyranny cannot be sustained.

And so, as ever, we must take up the work long-since started by our ancestors but which is not yet finished. We must make yet another new beginning--together--because this world matters, and so do we. Each and every one of us. We have much to be thankful for, and much work to do.

-- Timothy Prickett Morgan, November 24, 2005, New York, New York

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