What it means to be an American
By John D. Turner
3 September 2001

I am an American, fighting in the forces which guard my country and our way of life. I am prepared to give my life in their defense.-- Military Code of Conduct, Article I

Familiar words to those of us who serve, or have served in the military forces of the United States. Twenty-seven words which pretty much describe what service in our armed forces is all about. A tie that binds together all who wear the uniform; active duty, reserve, and guard. A reminder that military service is more than just a job; it is a commitment to serve and, if necessary, die, to protect those we love and the freedoms we cherish.

I feel the same way concerning citizenship in this great nation we call the United States of America. Whether we are born to citizenship, or came here from somewhere else, we need some common thread to tie us all together. What does it mean to be an American? When (if ever) was the last time you stopped to reflect on this question?

What makes America great? America is the sum total of the people who comprise her population. People from all walks of life, from every country on the face of the Earth. People of every race, color, and creed. But America isn't great simply because of her diversity. Diversity for the sake of diversity is as meaningless as change for the sake of change. Unfocused diversity is chaos. America's past brilliance has been to take that diversity and harness it into productive channels. We used to call this "the melting pot"; taking people from various backgrounds and cultures and melding them together into a new culture; an American culture, focused in a common direction. Diversity brought new and different ways of looking at things. And, as a hybrid is frequently stronger than the sum of its parts, so too American culture was stronger than the cultures from which it sprang.

Today, America more nearly resembles a stew, rather than a melting pot. And instead of celebrating American culture as a whole, we seem more bent on celebrating the meat, potatoes, and carrots individually. To an extent we have always been a stew, with pockets of various cultures existing within the united whole. I'm not saying we should be bland and homogeneous. I am saying that we should remember that we are a stew first; that our heritage as a potato is something to be proud of, but not to the exclusion of the stew. And oh by the way, we wouldn't be half as good a stew if it weren't for that onion or carrot over there, a dash of salt, and perhaps some oregano and curry powder for spice.

I am John D. Turner. Not Scottish-John D. Turner, or French-John D. Turner, or English-John D. Turner. I am the sum of my genetic heritages. I may find study of one or more of my cultural roots to be of interest, but I am not Scottish, nor French, nor English in my culture. I am American. The cultures in the countries I just mentioned are very different from America in ways large and small. American culture takes pieces from each (and many others) and blends them together into something new. Something American. I may some day decide to don a kilt and attend the Scottish games held in North Carolina, said to be the largest of their kind in the world (including Scotland). If I do so, I will be celebrating the Scottish part of my heritage. But I will not consider myself a "Scottish-American". I may be an American of Scottish descent, but I am simply, an American.

So too, it should be for all Americans from where every their ancestors hailed. There is nothing wrong with being interested in your roots. Genealogy is a fascinating subject, and one of great interest in my Church. But we should be Americans first. Hyphens and racial identifiers serve only to divide, not unite us.

As one people, we should have a common, official language. That language should be English. There is nothing wrong with speaking other languages. Americans should, in fact, strive to be more multilingual. It is of great benefit in the world we live in today. However, we should have one language in common. Having a common language strengthens us. There is no benefit in having citizens who cannot understand each other. Throughout the history of this country, emigrants from other countries have had to learn English in order to become fully functioning members of this society. They might or might not be incredibly proficient, but generally their children were. Unfortunately we are no longer emphasizing this in our country. Rather we are making it easy for people to live here, become citizens, raise children, and never learn English if they don't want to. And we seem to be celebrating the fact that Spanish is rapidly becoming a second "primary" language in this country.

We are not doing people a favor by placing them in this position. Nor is this healthy for the future of our country. Like it or not, English is the primary language in the United States of America. Not having a good command of both spoken and written English is a handicap which in general will condemn one to a lower economic status than they could otherwise achieve. Additionally, part of living in a representative democracy is communication with our elected officials. It is hard to do that without a common tongue. And Balkanizing ourselves is so unnecessary and so counterproductive. Take a good look at the Balkans, the area where the root for the word "Balkanization" derives, and you will quickly see where we don't want to go.

As a nation, we need things that bring us together, not drive us apart.

Perhaps we need some sort of "code of conduct" to remind ourselves that we are Americans, and what that means. Not hyphenated Americans of some sort. Not extra privileged Americans, or under privileged Americans, but Americans, united by our desire to be free and beholding to no one. United by a common vision. Proud of ourselves as a people and of our accomplishments as a nation. It might go something like this:

I am an American. I live in a nation where the ideas of liberty and individual freedom reign supreme. Where a person is judged not by their outward appearance, but by their personal integrity as expressed by their actions and deeds. Where thoughts and ideas can be freely expressed, and freedom of worship is regarded as a right. Where I can be secure in my possessions, free from government interference and imbued with the right to defend myself and my family from those who would seek to do us harm. As an American, I stand ready to aid my fellow citizens when needed, knowing that they stand ready to do the same for me. For we are Americans.

Having such a code, it would then be necessary for us to live the code. And that of course is the problem. Words are easy; deeds are more difficult. There is no law that can be passed to make us all work together, and even if that could be accomplished, it would violate the concept of freedom for which we stand. Coerced compliance is not freedom. The ends do not justify the means. It takes an individual effort from each individual. I have to be willing to make the effort, whether or not my neighbor feels the same. I am an American. Not a white-American, or a Scottish-American, or a Mormon-American, or any other prefix I could attach that might apply. I am simply an American, as are my fellow citizens. With the full rights, privileges, and duties that being an American implies.

The US Military Code of Conduct has six parts. Click here if you want to view them all. I suggest you do; it is important for the citizens of this country to understand the culture and ideals of those who stand in harms way in defense of their liberty.

I leave you with article VI of the Military Code of Conduct. I don't know how to put it more succinctly than this.

I will never forget that I am an American, fighting for freedom, responsible for my actions, and dedicated to the principles which made my country free. I will trust in my God and in the United States of America. -- Military Code of Conduct, Article VI.