November 16th, 2022
Now that the elections are mercifully over (for the most part), we can turn our attention to other matters. Thanksgiving is almost here, and it is possibly the only national holiday that doesn’t inspire controversy. It’s kind of a nonsectarian, feel good, kumbaya sort of day. We get the chance to gather with friends and family. We get to sit back, overeat, and enjoy being Americans. Maybe we even take a moment to be thankful.
So, what does it mean to be an American? There are over 300 million different answers to that question, and all of them are probably right to a certain extent. I would like to think that we, as Americans, share some basic values. Honestly, I’m not sure what those are. I’m not sure that anyone knows.
For several years I helped to teach a citizenship class at Voces de la Frontera in Milwaukee. I met once a week with green card holders who wanted to become Americans. As part of their citizenship test, they had to know the answers to one hundred questions about the United States. Many of these questions concerned the U.S. Constitution. I talked to the students quite a bit about the questions. They just needed to memorize some standard answers to successfully make it through the interview with the representative from USCIS. I wanted them to do more than that. I wanted them to have at least some understanding of how our government works.
Anybody who has been in the U.S. military has taken an oath to defend the Constitution of the United States from all enemies foreign and domestic. Of course, not many of us have actually read the Constitution in its entirety, and those who have waded through the document can’t agree on what it all means. The Constitution is our country’s secular Bible, our official operator’s manual, and like most sacred texts, it is a cause for endless argument and dispute.
I remember discussing with some students about how presidents are chosen. I asked one of them,
“Who elects the President?”
He gave the required response, “The American people elect the President.”
I asked, “What kind of government does the United States have?”
Approved answer: “The United States is a democracy.”
Then I decided to explain the Electoral College to the students. That was a hideous mistake. While describing how our elections work, I told them that it was possible for a person to lose the popular vote, but still win the presidency in the Electoral College. I looked at the students and saw blank stares and confused faces.
I backtracked and said, “You’re right. The President is elected by the American people. Just go with that.”
We also talked about the Bill of Rights. They needed to know some of the basic rights of Americans. The students could tell me that Americans have freedom of religion, freedom of the press, and freedom of speech. I asked them what these freedoms actually meant.
I tried to explain freedom of religion to them. I said,
“Okay, a devout Jew is not supposed to work on Saturday, the Sabbath. What if the Jewish person’s boss insists that the man or woman comes into the office on a Saturday? Does that violate the Jewish person’s freedom of religion?”
Things got very complicated very quickly.
I tried another question, “What about a baker who won’t bake a cake for a gay wedding because they believe doing so goes against their religious beliefs? Can the baker refuse to bake a cake for a gay couple?
Once again, lots of controversy.
I asked these sorts of questions to make the students think. I wanted them to understand that Americans believe in freedom, but somehow, we can’t agree on what these freedoms are.
At the end of the classes, my students were well aware that the American way of life is riddled with contradictions. They knew that our system of government is confusing at times, and usually dysfunctional. They understood that some things in the United States are unjust. They came to the conclusion that politics in our country are at best messy.
They all decided to take the test anyway, and almost all of them are now citizens.
We can be thankful for that.