Thoughts On Our Fragile Democracy


Rabbi Norman Patz
Erev Shabbat Zoom service

July 3, 2020 – 12 Tammuz 5780
Temple Beth Shalom of Puerto Rico

On this Fourth of July, the 244th birthday of the United States of America, I want to share with you my concerns about our fragile democracy. Here is why I am worried.

On the last day of the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia in 1787, a woman named Elizabeth Willig Powell asked Benjamin Franklin, “What do we have? A republic or a monarchy?” A very wise question, to which Franklin answered, “a republic, if you can keep it.”

This is our critical question: How do we keep it so that it delivers liberty and justice for all?

My answer is inspired by a phrase in the 19th century patriotic song, “Columbia the Gem of the Ocean.” The line is, “… Thy mandates make heroes assemble.” What an idea! That Columbia, that is, America, has mandates — obligations; our country makes demands on its citizens and expects and needs performance. America needs its citizens to live lives of civic responsibility. Each and every citizen has obligations to other citizens and to the ideals of America.

Yes, we’ve heard people say, “It’s a free country. I can do whatever I want.” That’s not even okay for a five-year-old having a temper tantrum. Freedom requires obligation, as Katherine Lee Bates wrote in “America the Beautiful”: “Confirm thy soul in self-control, thy liberty in law.” That is the point of American Civics 101, a course that used to be taught regularly in schools. Yet this basic idea is frequently derided by so many who pride themselves on their individualism. Their kind of individualism is not to be celebrated. It is blind selfishness and freedom taken so for granted that it is being distorted into the grossest of abuses.

By contrast, remember the days after Hurricane Maria here on the island when Puerto Ricans were out on the streets helping one another freely and constructively. And similarly after last winter’s earthquake.

Citizens of a democracy have not only rights but also obligations. This is important in any country, but it is especially important in America. Why? Our country is not, emphatically NOT, an ethno-state. America is the greatest experiment in pluralism in human history. “A nation of immigrants,” said President Kennedy. Not a melting pot in which precious traditions and identities are boiled away, but a magnificent orchestra with many authentic and different voices harmoniously joining together to make the music that is our glorious country.

If we can keep it. The fact is that the reality which we know as America is still an experiment. Maintaining it demands that we respect our differences even as we daily demonstrate loyalty to the commonwealth and keep faith in its rightness. Doing so is true patriotism.
“Eternal vigilance is the price of liberty” (Thomas Jefferson). Not only vigilance against foreign enemies but also against the ethnic supremacists and the relentless “purists” among us. This is vital for us as Jews in America, and as Americans who understand democracy and its fragility.

“Thy mandates make heroes assemble.” That’s the call all of America’s citizens need to answer on this Independence Day.

Let us be among America’s heroes.