— Why is it you can’t become Japanese or French, but you must become American? If I were to emigrate to Japan, I could not become Japanese; I would always be an American living in Japan. But if a Japanese citizen came here, he could become an American, and we would welcome him with open arms. Why? Because our identity is based not on ethnicity but on a creed of ideas and values in which most Americans believe. Historian Richard Hofstadter wrote, “It is our fate as a nation not to have ideologies, but to be one.” To become American citizens, immigrants must take a test demonstrating their knowledge of American history and civics.
— What are the principles that unite us as Americans? In Thanksgiving remarks after the Sept. 11 attacks, President George W. Bush praised our nation’s response to terror. “I call it the American character,” he said. Former Vice President Al Gore, in a speech after the attacks, said, “We should fight for the values that bind us together as a country.” In my Harvard course we put together a list of some of those values: liberty, e pluribus unum, equal opportunity, individualism, rule of law, free exercise of religion, separation of church and state, laissez faire and a belief in progress.
— If we agree on these principles, why is there so much division in our politics? Just because we agree on these values doesn’t mean that we agree on their application. Most of our politics is about the hard work of applying these principles to our everyday lives. When we do, they often conflict. For example, when discussing Bush’s proposal to let the federal government fund faith-based charities, we know that “In God We Trust,” but we also know that we don’t trust government with God. When considering whether the federal government should pay for scholarships that middle- and low-income families might use at any accredited school—public, private or religious—some object that the principle of equal opportunity can conflict with the separation of church and state.
— What does it mean to you to be an American? After Sept. 11, I proposed an idea I call “Pledge Plus Three.” Why not start each school day with the Pledge of Allegiance — as many schools still do — followed by a teacher or student sharing for three minutes “what it means to be an American.” Some of the newest American students will probably be some of the best speakers. I found in teaching my Harvard class that the student who best understood American identity was from the Ukraine.
— Ask students to stand, raise their right hand and recite the Oath of Allegiance, just as immigrants do when they become American citizens. I did this at a speech I gave recently on my American history and civics bill. It’s quite a weighty thing to “absolutely and entirely renounce and abjure all allegiance and fidelity to any foreign prince, potentate, state, or sovereignty” and to agree to “bear arms on behalf of the United States when required by the law.”
Terri Henderson, 6, center, whose mother is El Salvador, attends a rally with members of Congress at Union Station's Columbus Circle to announce the Restore Opportunity, Strengthen, and Improve the Economy (ROSIE) Act on July 29, 2014. The legislation provides incentives for government contractors to pay a living wage and other benefits that would help low-income workers.