The Soul of a(n immigrant) Nation

In this time of great national crisis, in which we are wrestling as we have wrestled only a few times before in our national life, with questions touching our basic commitments as a people, and testing whether we really are now (or perhaps ever have been) committed to the things we claim to love, we are not only faced with a choice of profound significance for us, but for humanity generally: is the idea of America still alive, and if so, is it worth pursuing?

As I say in the introduction to The Soul of a Nation:

There have always been those who have found, and there are today many who find America—what it was at the beginning, what it is now, what it might become—indefensible, and there are reasons. If, however, the persons who held the equal creation of all men and the rights to life liberty and the pursuit of happiness to be self-evident, the persons who ordained and established the Constitution, were able at all to make such a declaration and establish an ordinance for the protection of their declared understanding of human being, then our judgment of them must be based, not on disagreements with the policy of one or another administration’s exercise of America’s constituted governing machinery, but on our understanding of what the founding generation of America understood itself to be doing. Only then will the other questions that may or may not arise under America be amenable to criticism—whether from America or philosophy. – Soul of a Nation, 25.

A premise:

America is the name given to the physical place, extended in space and enduring over time, in which human beings come to live together in such a way as to make the truth of the claims advanced by the Declaration plain for all to see who come to live there. It is, therefore, the name the Founders give to the conceptual space in which they come to recognize each other as participating in the truths claimed for their lives by their representatives through the Declaration. Of course, the claim that the truth of America is plain for all to see who come there to live will depend entirely on the way of life adopted by those who are there and imparted to those who arrive, whether by birth or by boat. – Soul of a Nation, 124

What kind of a people are we, or do we aspire to be – and how ought we to live, how ought we to order our lives together, that the truths proclaimed as self-evident in our foundation, might really and truly be so in the present?

Regarding the specific question of immigration, I do not have any special insight into policy.

I do, however, know that, on a small island in the great port of our eastern littoral, there stands a great bronze statue, refiguring liberty as a great lady: crowned, vigilant, and bearing a great torch – a lighted torch that has been a beacon and a sign of welcome to the poor, the hungry, the oppressed, for more than a hundred years.

As liberty is a gift of God and the birthright of every member of our race, so was the statue a gift from one free and great-hearted people to another, given in esteem and recognition that our true greatness is found in the secret regions of our nation’s soul:

Not like the brazen giant of Greek fame,
With conquering limbs astride from land to land;
Here at our sea-washed, sunset gates shall stand
A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame
Is the imprisoned lightning, and her name
Mother of Exiles. From her beacon-hand
Glows world-wide welcome; her mild eyes command
The air-bridged harbor that twin cities frame.

“Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp!” cries she
With silent lips. “Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door. –  “The New Colossus” by E. Lazarus

We did not, through the late 19th and into the 20th century, live up spotlessly and without blemish to the esteem of our friends and allies, the French, as far as our immigration policy was concerned. Sometimes, that policy was frankly and unapologetically racist.

Nevertheless, there is a meanness of spirit that seems today to permeate much of our national discourse with regard to the right policy in the face of a new wave of migration, and with regard to a burgeoning refugee crisis – one that candid minds will not fail to recognize as owing itself in part, at least, to our own adventures overseas.

Meanness of spirit does not become us, and if we allow it to dominate our discourse, shall soon disfigure and destroy us.

Shall we put the lamp out now, or scratch the words of Lazzarus’ poem from the plaque, or break her arm and cast her torch into a shield, her crown into a sword? Shall we strip her skirts and make her thus to stand and keep her vigil: in foreboding?

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