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updated: 3/6/2012 11:05 AM

Exploring the meaning behind 'America's Promise'

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I recently had the privilege of speaking at the DuPage County branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People's 56th Annual Freedom Fund and Scholarship Gala. As I began to think about what I might say, I was struck by the title of the evening's gala, "Affirming America's Promise."

At first glance, I thought I had a pretty good idea what was meant. However, upon reflection, I find the title and its meaning may be a bit elusive. It reminded me of St. Augustine's famous quip: "Everyone knows what time is until asked." What exactly is "America's Promise?"

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To help gain some clarity on this question, I begin with Plato. In a work titled "The Republic," Plato tried to lay out his plan for the ideal city -- his utopia. He said that in order to successfully build the ideal city-state, one must begin with a "noble lie." In Plato's work, the noble lie takes the following form:

There are three types of people -- rulers, soldiers and farmers/craftsmen. These categories were not by chance but divinely designed. The gods created us using gold, silver and iron. Those metals determined where a person's station was in life. Those whose souls were made of gold were the rulers; those of silver, the military; those of iron, farmers and craftsmen.

Playing the lie out, one could not argue with one's station in life because individuals were designed by the gods to be what they were -- so be happy with it.

Clearly, our Founding Fathers did not subscribe to such a theory. But did they tell a "noble lie" to lay the foundation for the greatest country in the world? What might that "lie" be?

Let me suggest a candidate -- "All men are created equal."

What happened to women? We can squeeze out of this query by simply suggesting that the reference to "men" was generic and so included women. But let us not argue that one here. What we do know from our own experience is that each one of us is not equal in all things. Some are better scholars, better athletes, cooks, truck drivers, etc.

If we focus on physical or intellectual prowess as the formula for being equal, our founders were not telling us the truth, they were telling a "noble lie."

Perhaps we should let the Declaration of Independence speak for itself. "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."

Accordingly, the equality comes from these "inalienable rights" conferred on us by our Creator. America itself is based on this fundamental truth that God gave us our claim to certain rights and liberties. We are a country founded on God. Take away God, we take away our claim to these rights.

Throughout our history, these inalienable rights have taken form in issues like freedom from slavery, the ability to vote, to worship as we please, to own property, to be educated, etc. We have these rights bestowed upon us by our Creator -- this is America's Promise.

But who or what is America? What America is not is a political party, a company, a particular religion, a government, etc. America is its people. As the Preamble to the U.S. Constitution so boldly declares, "We the people of the United States …" The people are America, and America is the people.

So who makes "America's Promise?" It can only be Americans themselves. "America's Promise" means Americans bestow the God-given rights and liberties on one another and the "promise" was made to all Americans.

As long as any part of our society does not have the ability to realize these rights and liberties, the American Promise has yet to be kept.

I recently had the opportunity to see an amazing film, "Red Tails." Prior to seeing the movie, I watched the History Channel's documentary on the Tuskegee Airmen.

While the bravery, artistry, airmanship and love of country were awe-inspiring, I was left with an empty feeling. How could America marginalize some of its finest heroes? How could America not let them be all they could be? They returned home not as heroes, but as Negroes subjected to Jim Crowe laws. How could America let this happen? How could America withhold the "promise?"

Clearly, these men loved their country more than their country loved them.

How will America's Promise be realized? How do we allow the blossoming of God's gifts in each person?

We know from experience that if you plant a flower bulb and put a concrete block on top of it, it will not blossom.

Likewise, individuals who have such barriers put upon them are unable to blossom, unable to achieve as God mandated that they do. I believe the Founding Fathers established this great country so that each person might become all that he or she might be. "Equality" means the opportunity to blossom, as in the flower example.

Our Founding Fathers did not tell a "noble lie." They set the bar very high for the country that was to become the greatest in the world. Yet we have work to do. In affirming "America's Promise," we affirm what makes this country so great.

But, remember, without everyone having an opportunity to realize the promise, the promise has not been kept. While we celebrate and affirm America's Promise, it is now time to keep it.

• William J. Carroll is president of Benedictine University.

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