The United States' founding was one of setting a new expectation for the protection of individual and group freedoms, surpassing the so-called assurances of freedom in European monarchies. The revolutionaries sought to create a republic far freer than any other state.
Many people remember the phrase "We hold these truths to be self-evident" more than the 27 descriptions of wrong-doings on the part of the British throne and government outlined by the signatories of the Declaration of Independence. Nothing could be clearer than the fact that America intended to overcome these failures in favor of equitable governance far beyond what the world had ever seen before.
The recent debate surrounding the Park51 Cordoba House in New York City is one in a long string of episodes that demonstrates how many legislators and their constituents today are more interested in poll numbers than in the foundational truths of the United States — namely, that no matter the difficulty presented by granting freedoms to all groups, doing so is a fundamental characteristic of the nation. It is what distinguishes the U.S. from less free states and allows us to claim the status of a leader among nations.
On this issue at least, the American public has absolved itself of the enormous responsibility that being a leader on issues of freedom entails. 61 percent of Americans oppose the so-called Ground Zero Mosque and 70 percent believe that it insults the memory of the victims of the September 11, 2001, attacks on the World Trade Center. 63 percent of New York voters, on the other hand, state that while they oppose the building of the mosque, they do believe in the constitutional right of the group to build it.
The most disturbing revelations of this controversy are those pertaining to perceptions of Muslims. 28 percent of Americans believe Muslims should be barred from the Supreme Court; nearly a third believe that Muslims should be prevented from seeking the Presidency. Freedom of religion still exists in America, it seems, but only if you do not seek public office. Apparently Americans have forgotten how useful and necessary it is for the whole of the population to be represented by their elected officials.
It was former House Speaker Newt Gingrich's remarks that crystallized America's abdication of duty: "There should be no mosque near Ground Zero in New York so long as there are no churches or synagogues in Saudi Arabia. The time for double standards that allow Islamists to behave aggressively toward us while they demand our weakness and submission is over."
When has America set the bar for freedoms as low as the Saudi state's? In our doctrines on human rights, with which we condemn in strong language the actions of countries such as Saudi Arabia, America articulates a higher standard to which all countries should aspire. We quietly recognize our own past faults, from systematic extermination of Native American populations to World War II-era internment camps, and ask other countries to overcome past or current faults.
It is not only on issues as close to the American heart as freedom of religion in which the U.S. has fallen away from leadership on the world stage. President George W. Bush, as well as Congress during his tenure, repeatedly called for China to take the first step on carbon reduction and climate change before the U.S. would seriously consider dramatic change of its own. Instead of being an advocate for better environmental policy, America took a back seat, allowing China to claim the place of the global leader on green energy in the press.
Even more egregious was this summer's immigration debate debacle. Arizona demonstrated to the nation that Americans are not safe from stops and searches on the basis of race, and that officials are eager to score political points by making life harder for some of our poorest citizens. Sen. John McCain proved an example of a legislator more interested in reelection than preserving integrity and respect for American ideals when he reversed his position on immigration to stave off criticism from the far right.
In the middle of the 20th century, the United States sought to lead, for better or worse. But at the beginning of this century, politicians have vied for reelection-friendly sound bites rather than fighting for the ideals that would earn them and this country immortality. It is time for those of us who believe in the ideas espoused by the writers of the Declaration of Independence to tell our current leaders that although there is yet room before reaching the bottom, we would rather challenge ourselves to climb back towards the top.
Susannah Kroeber ‘11 is a Slavic studies and history concentrator from Beijing, China.