During his recent appearance on the ReAwaken America Tour, Donald Trump’s former national security adviser, retired Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn, stated: “If we are going to have one nation under God, which we must, we have to have one religion. One nation under God and one religion under God.” Shocking words to hear from someone who spent most of his life under oath to uphold the Constitution. Moral outrage over his comments poured in online, along with silence from others and support from some.
Flynn’s words have a tone of radicalization, an idea that is foreign to what we have worked for since our independence. Freedom of religion was discussed within our present-day boundaries as early as the 1600s, decades before it was accepted as the fabric of our nation in 1789 by the First Amendment. Most Americans take it as morally and lawfully just and as a non-negotiable tenet within our culture. But for some, including those in the crowd during Flynn’s remarks, the idea of tightening the parameters of who is free is met with cheers. As a former member of the intelligence community, I am struck by his disassociation with the values we both would have relied upon to fulfill our duties.
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Flynn’s profile offers him a platform to sell his beliefs in wholesale form. But, his seemingly quick turn of morality is not unlike what we have seen in people within our circles. It may be a family member, a coworker or a peer. It can be hard to have a conversation with them, or it may even be hard to put yourself in a position to be around them. It hurts. You knew them as a different person before their beliefs on hot-button issues became a part of their personality. The change has often happened so quickly that the person’s knowledge of the issues has been outpaced by sound bytes and regurgitation of radicalized talking points. As you watch the close bond you may have once had diminished, you still may feel a desire to protect the person from his or her new alliances because you know it is not who that person is at the core.
Watching the video of Flynn caused me to come back to something I often give thought to: What kind of world do I want to live in, and by whose values? A good friend brought to my attention the intersection of a commonly referenced idea of “city upon a hill.” This phrase draws from Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount where he says, “You are the light of the world. A city located on a hill that can’t be hidden.”
This bipartisan idea has been echoed by presidents such as John F. Kennedy, Ronald Reagan and, most recently, Barack Obama. The phrase has strong roots in Christianity and later with John Winthrop’s arrival in New England. The continued use of the words long after the First Amendment strips away the purely religious undertones that say this city upon a hill is a Christian one alone. The phrase stands alone by saying that we, as a nation, will strive to be a beacon of hope for the world, no matter your religious affiliation or lack of affiliation.
The identity of a nation is never complete. Each of us makes up the ever-changing identity by the values we choose to abide by and how we conduct ourselves as people residing within our borders. We will continue to mold our values throughout our lives as we learn more about the world around us. Often, these values are crafted by a belief in previously agreed-upon ideas, such as the First Amendment.
I have seen firsthand the despair caused by populations who don’t live under such protections during my travels. These same populations see us as the city upon a hill, a beacon of hope. We each have the freedom to choose what we believe that city should be built upon. Do you believe in a city that is built on freedoms such as those provided by the First Amendment? Or do you believe in Flynn’s more selective vision of the city upon a hill?