Who/what is an American? What does America mean to you and your faith?
American is what people become, all kinds of people. One can go live in Japan, but one cannot really become Japanese. One can go live in France, but one cannot become French. Yet, anyone can become an American.
The distinguishing characteristic of what it means to be an American is that it is not defined by blood and soil. America is a very large place but place is not the key to our identity. Nor do we share a common ethnic origin or ancestral pedigree. We are a people made different because we are rooted in an idea. Our story as Americans is the story of an idea that helped to forge a nation.
What is this idea? Martin Luther King called it the American dream. That dream is a society where people of all races, of all nationalities and of all creeds can live together as common citizens. The substance of that dream is the self-evident truth that all people are created equal and endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights that include life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.
That is the American idea, the dream—the dignity and worth of human personality. Not any particular kind of personality, simply human personality. To be an American is to belong to a people not determined by biology or place or religion bur rather freely joined by the covenant or promise of our idea.
Of course this dream is yet unfulfilled. Over the generations we are still perfecting our union. This is the genesis of America. It can change and evolve. The dream judges the nation and though the dream becomes fragile or even trampled it does not die.
And this is the thing about being an American, the greatest quality of it—that is our faith in the idea of America not matter how we fail that dream. It is a faith that confronts our sins and calls us to our best selves, that measures character and laws and attitudes and behavior, and prompts us to see the gap between the idea and the reality.
To be an American is to have faith in the capacity of the human spirit to span its hatreds and prejudices for the greater good. Not easily or without pain and trouble, but never to give up totally on the dream. For as the poet Langston Hughes wrote: “Hold fast to dreams. / For if dreams die / Life is a winged thing / That cannot fly.”