Voices
Illustration by Krieg Barrie

Cut to common cloth

America was shaped for sinners, not saints

Issue: "2009 Books Issue," July 4, 2009

As a child of the '60s my heroes came from television. Andy Griffith, Rob and Laura Petrie, Michael Landon's Little Joe and Hoss molded for someone who'd never left the South the image of what it meant to be an American. For a time I wore a POW bracelet bearing the name of Adm. Jeremiah Denton that also fired my imagination. During Denton's seven years' captivity in the Hanoi Hilton, Girl Scout meetings were consumed with learning Morse code after he gave his famous interview, blinking with his eyes the word "t-o-r-t-u-r-e" as he spoke to the camera.

Then came Watergate, and what it meant to be an American got interesting: As the presidency crumbled I remained glued to hearings of the Senate select committee conducted under the chairmanship of the plain-spoken senator from North Carolina, Sam Ervin. Cheeks warbling as if in the clutch of a phantom chaw of tobacco, Ervin quoted long passages from the Old and New Testaments, Mark Twain, or Shakespeare as suited the moment, without note or teleprompter.

When Nixon first refused to let his aides testify before the committee, Ervin erupted: "Divine Right went out with the American Revolution and doesn't belong to White House aides. What meat do they eat that makes them grow so great?"

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All this, long before we were a Colbert Nation.

Yet even Stephen Colbert, in his 2007 I Am America (And So Can You!) recognized that American heroes are "people who did not skip ahead." I myself was eager to skip but I was learning from both the heroes and rogues of my time.

Today I spend more time thinking about who it is my children are looking to as earthly citizen models. Who defines our age and country on its 233rd birthday? It is still the dawn of a new century but some of my children may live to see its closing days. In this century there are no bracelets for the Special Forces who stormed Tora Bora in December 2001. Television serves up Jon and Kate as über-Americans, reality-based and anti-hero. Summer reading lists are chockablock fiction, leaving little room for real-life stories of contemporary Americans.

Students! Read Three Cups of Tea and learn what an American can do in Afghanistan. Read War Child and learn from where Emmanuel Jal and his hip hop came. Read One Billion Customers and decide to do business with China. Read Mountains Beyond Mountains and be a doctor in Haiti. Read The Panic of 1907 to understand the Panic of 2008. These aren't necessarily my favorites among nonfiction Americana, but my way of saying that the fields are white for harvest. Christians spend too much time fussing about America and its Americans and not enough time fixing things.

Which brings me to our Founding Fathers, God bless them. As Michael Novak points out in his classic must-read The Spirit of Democratic Capitalism, also not, as far as I can tell, on anyone's summer reading list, the fathers thought a lot about who Americans really are, and "they strove manfully to design institutions proportionate not to angels or to saints but to sinners."

Tempted by perfectionism and utopian ideals in the New World, "They chose as their model citizen . . . neither the saint nor the preacher, neither the hero of war nor the aristocrat, neither the poet nor the philosopher, neither the king nor the peasant, but the free men of property and commerce."

Said Novak, the Founders considered such men "more common, more visibly human both in virtues and in vices, thus cut to the size of sinfulness and plain expectation." Jesus, after all, was a carpenter. There would be room enough within their system "for every form of heroism and high virtue, noble thought and brilliant deed. But the system as a system was cut to common cloth."

Not every American can be a war hero or a television star, but free men of property and commerce are everywhere and never more endangered than this July Fourth. Men and women in Washington want not only to tax and tax them but also to shut their car dealerships or tell them what color to paint the building roof (white). We are not yet so old a country to have vanquished the practitioners of the Divine Right of Kings. So how about a ration on the meat they eat?
If you have a question or comment for Mindy Belz, send it to mbelz@worldmag.com.

Mindy Belz
Mindy Belz

Mindy travels to the far corners of the globe as the editor of WORLD and lives with her family in the mountains of western North Carolina. Follow Mindy on Twitter @mcbelz.

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