What it means to be American is so much more than what people realize.
In 2016, President Donald Trump quoted his soon-to-be-famous proclamation: “Make America great again!” His words resonated with many people who felt that America had, at some point, lost worldwide credibility. Others supported the slogan—and by extension, Trump himself—because they felt that their identity as American citizens had lost integrity throughout the years.
The “Make America great again!” (MAGA) slogan spread across the nation and received both praise and criticism. Some people claimed America was already great. Such a claim happened when Meghan McCain, the daughter of former senator and U.S. patriot John McCain, spoke at her father’s funeral in September.
“America … has no need to be made great again because America was always great,” she said.
Yet there were some who opposed both MAGA and the McCains. These people claimed that America is not great and never was because of its past. This past was oppressive to many minority groups, and these prejudices still hold weight today. These people would ask, “How can America be made great again if it was never great to begin with?”
It has been two years since the last presidential election, and everywhere we look we can see people who blindly support America as it is today or who hate America because it does not align with their views.
I think the problem is that people have lost sight of what it means to be an American—a true American. Whether they are MAGA or Trump supporters, democrats or anywhere in between, people consider themselves to be patriotic without realizing what patriotism is. They call themselves “Americans” without realizing what America stands for.
America was built with the intention of freedom and liberty. It is in America that generations of people lost their lives to support the ideas of inalienable human rights, justice and morality. It is true that our nation has a dark, gray past. Land was taken from Native Americans, slaves were sold and women were forced into silence; America, like many nations around the world, grew from the oppression of many.
But for every injustice, there has been redemption. People were not given their rights––they took their rights. They fought and died for their rights. They took the American Dream and made it a reality. When the words, “Give me liberty or give me death” were uttered, they were done so in sincerity. To this day, protesters and activists strive for equality, and the politicians who work for us—who are us—must listen to us when we say something is a problem.
Being an American is not easy. We can say what our values are, how good we strive to be and what we aim to do, but there will always be those who call out our hypocrisies. The goal is not to deny our dark history, nor the present which comes with its own problems––but to strive to do and be better according to our convictions.
Being an American is not only about having the freedom to speak, to protest, to vote, to work or to go to school. Being an American is not only about being free. It is not only about being patriotic, nor religious, nor “great.” Being an American means fighting for the freedom and liberty of others. It is about recognizing both our good and bad qualities and utilizing our abilities and resources to be better.
It is about seeing our neighbors—immigrants, migrants, criminals and the poor—and helping them. It is about showing compassion when hearing how communism is leaving families without food, watching as children are hurt in war zones and seeing a “river” of people fleeing from oppression to the U.S.
Being an American is not about being free, but about recognizing the root of our freedom. It is knowing that we were the immigrants and migrants fleeing from oppression and remembering that we were silenced. Remembering that America, like Christianity, was born from the poor, the broken and the marginalized. It is about remembering who sacrificed their lives—willing or not—for us to be in the positions we are in today.
The fact is, America is great. We are great because we are powerful, privileged and able. We have the ability to exercise freedoms that are denied to other people. We have the ability to shape our world, without hindrance, “of the people, by the people, for the people.”
But just because we are great does not mean we are not troubled. We must remember who “the people” are. We must remember where freedom and liberty come from. It is the people at the borders, the children fleeing from oppression and the hungry mouths within our own country who suffer while some of us sit in comfortability, seeing these things on the news and doing nothing to help.
Being an American means taking action. It means being angry when our nation sees oppression and does nothing about it. It means being outraged when America—a nation built on the backs of the oppressed—denies the very people who founded it. It means having pride and courage in standing up for those people and extending a gracious, helping hand to all who need it.
On one level, being an American means having U.S. citizenship, but we should remember that many of the people who influenced America throughout history were not born U.S. citizens, like Alexander Hamilton who greatly influenced the Constitution and Joseph Pulitzer who was instrumental in transforming news into what it is today. Being an American, then and now, is about more than citizenship status; it’s about coming together as people to make things better than they currently are.
If you benefit from freedom but do nothing to extend that freedom to others, you are not representing America well. If you claim to love people and express desire to help but do nothing to put those desires into action, you are not embodying American values. Name alone means nothing; it is the action that changes the world.