American Crucible


For more than two hundred years the United States has stood before the world as a beacon of hope, as a source of creative energy and as an evolving expression of political freedom, social diversity, and economic vitality. People everywhere have been attracted to the vision it represents.  Yet, the extraordinary challenges that confront the American people today mark a turning point and a defining test of America’s place in history.

We have entered a dark time.  Confronted with economic instability, social disorder, and widespread distrust, it can be easy to forget the unique stature of the United States and the unfolding role it has played in the progress of an ever-advancing civilization.  Our economic well-being as a nation has been weakening for decades, and the generosity of spirit for which we have long been known has dimmed.  Confidence in the future is shaken.

There is more than enough blame to go around and we all know about it.  What is essential, however, is that we recover our traditional spirit of generosity and resilience.  There is truth in the unity of our national character—in our humanity and the dignity that has always given us courage and self-respect.

Few have expected what we are seeing now.  The future has been altered in unimaginable ways.  Even so, America is blessed with a constitutional order that respects the individual, seeks to protect both minorities and majorities, and makes room for diversity, innovation and creativity.

The genius of the United States Constitution lies in a simplicity that imposes minimal restraint and allows maximum freedom—all the while requiring moral responsibility and functional cooperation.

It is a legal document, carefully crafted in structure and intentionality.  But it is far more than a simple contract.  It embodies a vision and a trust.  It was prepared by men who cared deeply about the future and about Americans as a people.

The Constitution presents itself today as the gift of an inheritance.  The freedom it promises is anchored in the wisdom of its legislative order, the protections it ensures for the individual, and the means with which it enables constructive change.

These are among the essential elements of a civil order that provides Americans with stability and the opportunity to forge a rational future.  The American Founders recognized that the liberty secured through constitutional order will only be as strong as the citizens who make it so.

In what form must this strength manifest itself?

The unique character of the Constitution depends on moral responsibility and the basic virtues we all know about: Truthfulness, trustworthiness, justice, forbearance—and a prudence that respects the interdependence of these virtues.

This expectation of the future is written into the fabric of the American idea.

Yet we are confronted with unsettling questions in the 21st century.  A multitude of severe crises have brought immense pressures to bear.  Will civil order be torn apart by resentments, distrust and frustration?  Will the nation survive as the constitutional republic envisioned by its founders?  Do we have the fortitude and grit to learn the lessons and reaffirm the vision that will lead to a genuine American renewal?  We are living at a pivotal moment.

Will Americans embrace the spirit required of us by the founders, which alone can lead to unity of purpose?  Or will we succumb to a rigidity born of insecurity and fear?  Neither philosophical convictions or the correction of mistakes can be addressed effectively until we answer this question in dialogue, as well as in our own hearts.  Civil disarray and social degradation will remain with us until it is.

Do we believe in the American tradition of good will—the expectation that people of differing persuasions can unite around a common cause?  Do we have the patience to rebuild a national unity that transcends the differences that always exist among a free people?  Or, to put the question another way, will we do what is necessary to make the United States of America whole and to prepare it for the future we deserve?

Early in the present century Peggy Noonan, a widely read conservative columnist and one-time aide to President Ronald Reagan, addressed this question eloquently in her collection of essays, “Patriotic Grace, What It Is and Why We Need It Now”. She wrote during a season of bitter political back-biting, and, as we all know, things soon became very much worse:

“I believe we have to assume that something bad is going to happen, someday, to us.  Maybe it will be ten years from now, but maybe not, maybe sooner, much sooner.  We have to assume, I think, that it will be a 9/11 times ten, or a hundred, or more, and that it will have a deeply destabilizing effect on our country; that it will test our unity and our endurance, our resourcefulness and faith.

“We all know this, I think, deep down.  I don’t know a major political figure in America to whom all this has not occurred, and often…. And yet in some deep way our politics do not reflect our knowledge.  It’s odd.  Stunning, actually.  We keep going through the same old motions in the bitter old ways.  Even our cynics are not being realistic!

“Man has never developed a weapon he didn’t ultimately use,” Ronald Reagan once said in a conversation in the Oval Office.  He spoke, in his soft voice, of the great horror of modern warfare, that civilians are now targets.  Once they weren’t.  Now they are.  It worried him.  It worries me.

“And that is only the external threat.  The domestic ones are all around us, in the air, and we know them well: Will the banks fail, is the system built on anything but faith, and will the faith hold?  Will we keep our coherence as a country, will we hold together, can we continue as a sovereign nation at peace with itself?”[i]

Like Peggy Noonan, most of us never expected to see the United States in the condition in which we find it today.  Let’s be clear: Growing disorder was apparent long before the devastation wrought by the COVID-19 pandemic.  Lean times and financial hardship have been dominating the lives of millions of Americans.  You know who you are.

We face a uniquely American crisis, yet one that is unfolding in the midst of an extraordinary global turning point.  An oncoming confluence of crises challenges us to rise to a new level.  Do we imagine that a superhero will rescue us?  Or will we pick ourselves up, reach out to our neighbors, and do what needs to be done?

This is an uncompromising personal question.  Whatever ones’ personality, political philosophy or religious belief, we have a choice to make.  Not to respond, or to defer commitment, is in fact to answer the question.  Failure to rise to necessity is to accept defeat.  Either we will retreat into ourselves, accepting the world as beyond our control, or we will step forward in our local communities to engage hardship and purpose with constructive intent.

Certainly, it will be essential that we work together, engaging and collaborating with as wide a diversity of our fellow citizens as possible.  Any purpose short of this will be playing to lose.

The first half of this book reviews the historical context of our present difficulties with observations that might assist the reader to reflect on the once and future identity of the nation.  The second half offers a path to a civilized future—rocky yet sure—a course of constructive action built on the genuine engagement of Americans with one another.

While the choice is personal, it comes at a time of existential crisis for America.  To hesitate would be to act as victims rather than as Americans.  It would be to choose loss over promise, helplessness over responsibility.  We may be temporarily intimidated by difficult circumstances.  But we must never give in, and never lose sight of the dawn of a new day that even now brightens the horizon.

Without the personal courage to begin anew, we will join the slide into turmoil.

The Differences That Divide Us

The differences that divide the American people in the early decades of the twenty-first century are unquestionably the deepest we have seen since the Civil War. Our differing views are based on many things: political opinion, economic circumstances, personal experience, ethical and religious values, and our understanding of history and of one another.  We must attempt to ascertain the reality of genuine disagreements and recognize the influence of dishonest manipulation.

The vitality of the nation has always been rooted in the dynamic fertile engagement of differing ideas, often intense differences that reflect a wide range of experience and perspective.  And, I will not minimize our differences here.  Nor will I ask that you alter your values or views.  The opportunity for understanding (and influencing) one another will depend on a stable and sustainable forum for genuine engagement.  Truth will not change, but truth-seeking requires a steadfast effort to reach objectivity.  Negotiation begins with understanding.  Civility, patience, and self-control will be necessary if we are to create safe community-based venues for inquisitive dialogue.

Those who foster hostility or propose sedition will undermine the idealism of their own principles.  Their words and actions will be met with distrust.  Few Americans will respond favorably to coercive force that subverts civil order or strikes blows against the Constitution.  A future compromised by fear or moral degradation can only fail us.  Now is the time to pull ourselves together and summon the courage to determine a constructive course of action.  A future we can respect can only be built with integrity, fortitude, and hard work.

If we are concerned about the motives or intentions of our fellow citizens, it is only practical that we seek a genuine understanding of what they are thinking—the basis for their ideas and where they think they are going.  Otherwise, we are flying blind.

To those convinced that the only just solution to the present disarray is to be found in combative politics, I have a simple and straightforward response.  Whatever one’s purpose or views, a constructive future will only be possible with accurate information and understanding.  Whatever our principles, without truthfulness and effective communication we will sink into quicksand.

Influencing people and opening them to ideas and new ways of thinking requires getting at their underlying assumptions.  If this is not our purpose, then what are we doing?

Security depends on accurate knowledge, and governance depends on honest engagement free of manipulation.  Without willing consideration of differing perspectives, the effort to correct misperceptions and confused thinking can never take place.  In this way the downward spiral can only accelerate.  You all know what I am talking about.

It is neither practical or civilized to go to war with one another when our principles, security, and shared needs all depend on an ability to engage in rational problem-solving.  Are we prepared to give priority to defending the nation, to securing the safety of our communities, to building a stable society?

Our differences are not new.  Americans have always been contentious.  In my view, we have no choice but to develop a vision that seeks the practical benefits of diversity, that facilitates ongoing debate and our ability to influence one another—and the future.

What do we fear?  A readiness to entertain differing views without altering ones’ own is the measure of a mature person.  And, this becomes necessary if we are to engage with the experiences and reasoning behind differing perspectives.  Personal experience shapes thinking, values and ethics.  We cannot influence change without an accurate understanding of what needs to be changed.

We will not come to agreement on many things.  However, we would do well to remain open to the possibility that when conflict is handled effectively, it can lead to greater security and collaboration.  Sometimes we pay a price for fear or defensiveness, when courage is only one step away.

Strategy and Purpose

This book is a pragmatic response to two concerns.  First, the present circumstances are unacceptable to everyone—socially, politically, and materially.  Without constuctive engagement we can expect conditions will continue to deteriorate.  Second, it is my conviction that the preservation of the United States as a constitutional republic is important, and that the integrity of the American idea must survive the deepening crisis.  Those who share these concerns are invited to read on.

The strategic proposal offered in the second half of the book assumes that Americans are willing and able to rise above our differences to the extent necessary to secure the safety of our local communities, as well as to preserve the core values of United States.  The strategy is designed to carry us through a long and potentially destructive sequence of oncoming crises, some of which will be unexpected.  It presents a challenge that calls for meaningful communication.  And here lies our greatest challenge.

At the present time this might seem all but impossible.  Honest communication is essential.  The communication of which I speak has a quality and intent which is conditioned by the purpose it serves.  Superficial talk will not be useful.  If we have strong beliefs and genuine concerns, let’s get real:  To berate and demonize one another gets us nowhere.  This hardens prejudices and carries us backward.  Because substantial misperceptions need to be corrected, we will have to reach across the barriers that obstruct our ability to listen and understand.

I believe there to be only one place where this is possible, and only one frame of mind or “attitude” that will allow it.  This place, and the condition of which I speak, can only be actualized in the interdependent self-reliance of locally constituted communities.  Given the deepening crisis, a genuinely American future will depend on trusting relationships with dependable neighbors.

Let me be very clear, however:  This is proposal is not to be confused with the concept of “intentional community”, which is an association of like-minded people.  Rather, I speak of authentic American communities, organized where we are already at home.  Those who retreat from plurality to withdraw into self-defined enclaves will create a state of siege.  This will subvert the most fundamental principles of the American republic.

Engaged communication must have honesty of purpose.  It must serve the needs of family and community life.  It needs to facilitate our ability to resolve problems and meet shared needs.  Difficult times call for a diversity among neighbors that provides practical resources, including personal knowledge, experience, and learned skills.

What is immediately essential is not that we agree, but that we work together constructively to resolve pressing material problems—to collaborate.  In so doing, we will begin to listen and learn, to genuinely know one another, and to enter a middle ground that facilitates co-existence and ensures a dependable security.

Only then will it become possible to actualize a shared future we can live with.  Local communities and networks of communities, organized with a constructive and inclusive attitude, will ensure that the American identity is held in trust through a long dark night and into a new day beyond. This is the conceptual basis for the strategy proposed in this book.

We are presented with a formidable task.  Without trustworthy neighbors and cohesive communities, how will we engage constructively with America as a whole—a people uprooted and disorganized in the wasteland of a broken society?

There will be no alternative to building dependable relationships, a stable civil order, and a safe future for our children and grandchildren.  On the following pages I will offer this strategy and the means to make it real, as a personal challenge to my readers as thinking, caring, self-respecting adults.

Under extreme conditions, well-organized functional communities will alone possess the capacity and conditions for preserving the core principles of the United States.  The interpersonal skills and practices necessary for democratic governance on a broader scale can best be learned in the crucible of community.  This is our turning point.  Do we have the will to rise above our differences to engage with our neighbors, to resolve local problems and meet shared needs?  Are we willing to learn and grow?

Community will not protect us from uncertainty.  What it can do, and will do if we are determined, is to open the door to practical potential—dependable neighbors, mutual assistance, food security, and economic renewal on a human scale.  It positions us to best keep our balance mentally and spiritually.  And, it keeps the future alive.

The Choice Is Ours

America has gained its vitality from a broad diversity of perspective, productive energy, and creative imagination.  Above all, we have gained from the clash of differing opinions.  However, our differences must never be permitted to subvert the unity of purpose that secures the nation. This immense energy and vitality of spirit can only be productive if disciplined by civil discourse and steadfast loyalty to a shared vision.  We have entered the fiery test of a crucible in which the forces of crisis will burn away self-centered thinking and expose dishonest intent.

In an extraordinary time of existential danger, we are confronted with a stark choice. Will we apply the founding principles of these United States as we build the foundation for a free, ethical, and prosperous future? Will we defend and protect two hundred years of commitment, hard work, and sacrifice by generations of Americans who have given their lives to this unprecedented vision?

Or, will we give way to the emotions of uncompromising partisanship—and allow a great trust to shatter and fall away?

On the following pages I will cut through the emotions and complexity of a monumental moment in history to urge that we join with one another to preserve and renew the United States as a unique and compelling model for a free, stable, and prosperous world.  Is this really possible?  Yes, but only with steadfast patience and the ability to envision the end in the beginning.

It will not be easy.  Responsibility never is.  With loyalty, discipline and determination, I submit to you that something far better, far nobler, something perhaps beyond our present ability to imagine, will emerge from the present turmoil.

If, however, we cannot work together effectively to build safe communities with people we have differences with, then we will condemn ourselves to the only possible alternative: a collapsing civilization distinguished by fear and violence, a nightmare for our children, and a land where no principles, no values, no stable order can be realized.

[i]   Peggy Noonan, Patriotic Grace, What It Is and Why We Need It Now, HarperCollins (2008), pp 36-7.

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