Knowing and Loving America's Heritage

It was a humid July day in southwestern Ohio.  My parents and I sat around the dining room table, along with three sets of my aunts and uncles who had made the trip to our house from North Carolina and Illinois.  My dad is the youngest of 13 kids, born into a family of poor sharecroppers in southeastern Missouri.  These three brothers of his are the only remaining siblings left from that large family.

As we dove into generous helpings of summer barbeque, my mom asked my Uncle Roy Gene about his experience serving America in the Korean War.  It was then that our conversation quickly turned serious.

While the home video camera rolled, my uncle recounted his story.  He recalled poignantly what it was like to be in those frigid foxholes of the Korean mountains as a scared kid in his early 20s.  He told us about the pain he experienced watching his buddies die and having to see even young enemy soldiers die.  With tears streaming down his face, he shared the pact he made with God one night as artillery shells and bullets whizzed past, only inches away from him – if God would bring him home safely, he would serve God faithfully all of his life.  Both God and my Uncle Roy Gene held up their ends of the bargain.  My uncle returned back to the States unharmed and served the Lord in church ministry for many years.

Hearing my uncle’s gripping story, I realized two things.  One, I knew little about the Korean War.  Two, there were many things about Uncle Roy Gene that I did not know.  This uncle – the same one I had seen at countless family reunions as a kid – had experienced things about which I knew nothing.  That sweltering July day in southwestern Ohio, my love and appreciation for my uncle grew, as my knowledge of him grew.

Since that day, it has occurred to me that the same principle holds true when it comes to studying America’s legal-political heritage–the more I know about it, the more I appreciate it. 

American founder and prominent legal scholar, James Wilson, once remarked that “Law and liberty cannot rationally become the objects of our love unless they first become the objects of our knowledge.”

Think of it this way: Would you marry someone about whom you know very little?  Is it even possible to love someone you don’t really know?  Very few of us would answer ‘yes’ to those questions.  The same is true when it comes to America’s legal-political heritage.  We must learn about it before we can appreciate it.

Ours is a heritage worth loving, worth upholding. But to do so, we must first know it.

 A 2006-2007 survey conducted by the Intercollegiate Studies Institute (ISI) of 14,000 American college students showed that 71% failed a basic American civics knowledge quiz.  Only half of these students surveyed from Ivy League, Christian, and non-Christian institutions could name the three branches of government.  The average score on this civics quiz was well below 60%, an “F” by any grading standard.

The same survey revealed that college professors did not fare much better, scoring an average of 55% on the basic American civics knowledge quiz.  Additionally, well over half of America’s elected officials and politicians did not know that “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” are the inalienable rights referred to in the Declaration of Independence and could not name one right or freedom guaranteed by the First Amendment.  A staggering 79% of these elected officials taking the quiz did not know that the Bill of Rights prohibits the government from establishing a religion.

Although the ISI survey was conducted nearly ten years ago, one can correctly surmise that scores would not be much higher if the same civics quiz were administered today.

The abysmal results of this ISI American civics quiz illustrate the role the turmoil of the 1960s, and the resulting cultural shift away from a Judeo-Christian moral consensus, may have played in the incremental removal of vital instruction about American civics, citizenship, and our legal-political heritage, particularly at the collegiate and graduate levels.

Why should this matter to anyone, especially to millennials, today?

Noah Webster, originator of the famous Webster’s Dictionary, wrote in 1790 that a primary goal of education is to “implant in the minds of the American youth the principles of virtue and liberty and inspire them with just and liberal causes of government and with an inviolable attachment to their own country.”  America’s founders taught that our nation could not survive, let alone flourish, apart from a virtuous citizenry educated in the principles upon which America was built, based largely on a Judeo-Christian worldview. 

Admittedly, there have been, and still are, flaws in our heritage, due to the fallen nature of the world and humanity because of sin–most notably, slavery and the civil rights struggle of the 1950s and 60s.  But our flaws do not diminish the need to learn, respect, and uphold our heritage.   We should not ignore the grave injustices that have been committed in our nation’s history. Instead, our nation should use the lessons from our past as a catalyst in the continued pursuit of liberty, respect for human dignity, and equal opportunity for all, not only in our country but around the world, in far-away places like South Korea, for whose freedom my Uncle Roy Gene, now in his 80s, spent his youth fighting. 

In 1837, President Andrew Jackson warned that eternal vigilance is the price we must pay for maintaining our liberty.  He said, “You have the highest of human trusts committed to your care.  Providence has showered on this favored land blessings without number, and has chosen you as the guardians of freedom, to preserve it for the benefit of the human race.” 

Millennials are the next generation to advance the cause of freedom.  To complete this critical mission, we should equip ourselves, lest we mistakenly plunge enthusiastically into issues of justice without first discovering their historical underpinnings. 

Ours is a heritage worth loving, worth upholding.  But to do so, we must first know it.

-Zach Bohannon serves as Director of The Center for Law and Culture, a non-profit organization in partnership with Olivet Nazarene University, which inspires students and citizens to be virtuous Christian leaders in law, government, politics, and other areas of public life.