I was recently shown a picture from one of the Occupy protests taking place across the country. It featured a young woman surrounded by police. She was the only protester in the picture, but she didn't seem intimidated. All by herself, up against the police barricade, she held a handwritten sign saying simply, "I am a born again American."
I've never met this woman, but I think I know exactly what she's feeling.
I had my first "born again American" moment 30 years ago, when I was moved to outrage and action by a group of hate-preaching televangelists who were trying to claim sole ownership of patriotism, faith and flag for the far right. One of them asked his viewing congregation to pray for the removal of a Supreme Court justice.
I did what I knew how to do and produced a 60-second TV spot. It featured a factory worker whose family members, all Christians, held an array of political beliefs. He didn't believe that anyone, not even a minister, had a right to judge whether people were good or bad Christians based on their political views. "That's not the American way," he wound up saying. I ran it on local TV, and it was picked up by the networks. People For the American Way grew out of the overwhelming response to that ad.
One of the most encouraging things to happen in 2011 was the birth of the Occupy Wall Street movement, which is giving the entire country the chance for a "born again American" moment. In calling attention to the country's widening chasm between rich and poor, the Occupiers have unleashed decades of pent-up patriotic outrage against the systematic violation of our nation's core principles by the "say good-bye to the middle class" alliance of the neocons, theo-cons and corporate America.
To those many millions of Americans whose guts tell them the Occupy movement is on to something — but who aren't the sort to camp out or protest in the street — I say, find another way to let your voice be heard in the new year. Work with others who share your passion for equal opportunity and equal justice for all Americans, and find ways to channel outrage into productive action. I'm betting you'll find, as I have over my nearly four score plus 10, that you'll form some of the most rewarding relationships and have some of the most meaningful experiences of your life.
I have been lucky in many ways. I was raised by my immigrant grandfather to treasure the freedom and opportunities America offers. I also learned early to fear the power of demagogues with megaphones, as an 11-year-old listening to the anti-Semitic ravings and attacks on President Franklin D. Roosevelt from radio priest Father Coughlin, the spiritual godfather of those who poison our airwaves and online forums today. By the time I was a teenager, I knew that the values of individual and religious liberty were worth fighting for, which is why I dropped out of college to enlist in the war against Hitler.
Since then, I have repeatedly seen Americans get off their couches to hold this country accountable to its stated values. They did it to fight for civil rights and the dismantling of the legal apartheid of Jim Crow; for the women's movement; for equality for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender Americans. They have rallied to ensure that immigrants are treated with dignity and justice. All these efforts to overcome bigotry and institutionalized prejudice are still works in progress, but I am awed by the progress we have made.
Generations of Americans have worked to create a nation in which individual liberty can thrive alongside commitment to the principle that all members of a community should have the opportunity to pursue their dreams and build a decent life for themselves and their families. In recent decades, that dream has been betrayed.
The religious right leaders who got me engaged in politics often portray such things as free expression and equal protection for all Americans, no matter their race, religion or sexual orientation, as anti-Christian and un-American — as symptoms of cultural decline. I couldn't disagree more. What strikes me as un-American are the greed, deception and systematic corruption that have infected politics, business and so much of our culture in recent years. Some of those with power and privilege have worked to create a system that continually reinforces that privilege and power, leaving ever-increasing numbers of Americans without reasonable hope for the kind of life their parents worked to give them.
Many Americans are in despair, and it has left them open to demagoguery and political manipulation. Blame gays, liberals, unions, immigrants or feminists for your family's struggles, for shrinking economic opportunity, for foreclosures and disappearing wages and benefits. Blame secularists or Muslims, or both, for the sense that our values have gone haywire.
Nearly a year out from the 2012 election, I am already tired of those who use the phrase "American exceptionalism" to reassert the far right's claim that God, the Founding Fathers and any decent, freedom-loving American must share their reactionary political agenda. I embrace the idea, too, that our nation should be a "shining city on a hill." We are the spiritual heirs to those Americans who struggled to end slavery and segregation, to end child labor and win safe conditions and living wages for workers, to enable every American to enrich his or her community and country by finding a place and a way to flourish in the world. We must make ourselves worthy of that legacy.
Call it the American dream, the American promise or the American way. Whatever term you use, it is imperiled, and worth fighting for. It is that basic, deeply patriotic emotion that I believe is finding expression — bottom-up, small-d democratic expression — in the Occupy movement. We can, and I would say must, fully embrace both love of country and outrage at attempts to despoil it. What better cause? What better time?