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'Toward a More Perfect Union': We can teach ugly truths and beauty of America (book review)

Credit: Fidelis Publishing
Credit: Fidelis Publishing

In recent decades, America’s deficiencies have become more a focus of public attention than its many blessings. Historic wrongs (slavery and its legacies are but one example) cannot be ignored any more than current evils. Hundreds of thousands of unborn children slain within the wombs of their mothers annually speak to this latter fact.

However, not to celebrate the many wonderful things in our heritage is to turn a blind eye to truths that not only inform who we are but which also should be sources of ongoing celebration and gratitude.

It’s for this reason that my friend of many years Tim Goeglein has written, Toward a More Perfect Union: The Moral and Cultural Case for Teaching the Great American Story (Fidelis, 2022). As he notes in the book’s introduction, making that case is imperative for our future as a republic. “Even if students escape high school with some semblance of grounding in history and civics,” he says, “they are virtually guaranteed to receive an onslaught of anti-American venom when they enter college.”

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Sadly, this verdict is all too true. Goeglein’s book documents the disturbing decline in the knowledge young Americans have of their country’s history and the distorted view of our past that too often accompanies it. Not only is this disappointing, but it is also dangerous. A lack of appreciation for our country’s moral foundations, political genius, and ongoing efforts to fulfill the promises of the Declaration of Independence breeds not just ingratitude but hostility.

As a case in point, Goeglein highlights the propagandist Howard Zinn, who for decades has sought to distort American history to advance his extreme Leftist ideology. Zinn’s most influential work, A People’s History of the United States, is not a corrective to a false account but a false account masquerading as a corrective. Documenting Zinn’s deliberate efforts to corrode an honest reading of our past through his deliberate garbling of facts, Goeglein explains that Zinn “does not want to deepen our understanding of (a given) historical period, he wants to upend it; and to do that, he must supply new facts to fit his narrative.”

The facts of American history are, in themselves, remarkable. Although the Founders of our country were imperfect and did not always live up to the convictions they espoused, their record of courage and foresight has ennobled human dignity for nearly 250 years. Abraham Lincoln understood this. As he said of the beginning of our republic, “Every nation has a central idea from which all its minor thoughts radiate.” The Emancipator cited the essential principles of our charter text as that “central idea” — that a Creator has endowed every person with certain unalienable rights because He has made all of us of  value in His eyes.

This radical proposition — that the bonded and the bondsman were both equally and fully human in the eyes of God — has been the north star of our national experience since 1776. What the Left misses is that imperfection does not mean ignobility. For example, our long march toward fully-realized equality before the law has been uneven but steady. The Constitution ended the slave trade in 1808. Heroic figures like John Quincy Adams, Prudence Crandall, Frederick Douglass and William Lloyd Garrison, joined by northern Evangelical Protestants, animated the abolition movement in the years prior to the Civil War.

That war itself produced the liberation of a race, a liberation stunted by the often brutal treatment of former slaves and oppressive legal structures in both the north and the south. Yet in the mid-1960s, dramatic changes led to advances in racial equity, changes whose implications we are still seeking to fulfill today.

My point, and I think Goeglein’s, is not that we should gloss over the errors of our past but, in recounting them, note the battles for ending them that have been waged since our nation began. No other country in the world has the capacity for self-correction than the United States. And no other country has fostered ordered liberty and economic prosperity, individual opportunity, and honorable citizenship as has ours.

As Goeglein notes in his conclusion, America is “not a country founded on oppression, hatred for others, and self-interest.” Instead, he writes, “We need not fear to teach the ugly truths about America alongside the beautiful ones because America’s founding vision is pure and her ideals are noble. Our failures do not change that.”

In 1982, an 85-year-old Sicilian immigrant named Frank Capra, whose films won numerous Academy Awards and established him as one of the great directors in movie history, received the American Film Institute’s Life Achievement Award. In concluding his remarks upon receiving the honor, he said, “For America, for just allowing me to live here, I kiss the ground.”

Goeglein’s patriotism and intellectual integrity have moved him to write an exceptional work in that same spirit. Wide reading and determined application of his book would be abundantly welcome in 2023 and beyond.

Rob Schwarzwalder is Senior Lecturer in Regent University’s Honors College. Before coming to Regent University, Schwarzwalder was senior vice president at the Family Research Council for more than seven years, and previously served as chief of staff to two members of Congress. He was also a communications and media aide to a U.S. senator and senior speechwriter for the Hon. Tommy Thompson, secretary of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. For several years, he was director of Communications at the National Association of Manufacturers. While on Capitol Hill, Schwarzwalder served on the staffs of members of both Senate and House Armed Services Committees and the Senate Committee with oversight of federal health care policy. His writing has been carried in such diverse publications as the New York Times, U.S. News, Time Magazine, Christianity Today, the Public Interest, and the Federalist.

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