It was only the second time I had been off the North American continent, the second time I had been outside the United States for a two-week work assignment. I was walking up the Via Veneto in Rome when I spotted the United States flag—MY flag—flying above some trees on a pole. I could not resist snapping a photo.
It was no more than a few seconds before a richly uniformed policeman stopped me as I continued up the street. Why was I taking pictures? Between his limited English and my very minimal Italian, I made him understand that I was taking a picture of the flag, though there was no way I could explain to him what seeing it meant to me. He allowed me to move on. A few yards farther up the street, I understood why my action had drawn his attention. That flag was flying over the U.S. embassy, and outside its gates were Italian guards in flak vests, automatic weapons at the ready. I realized that everywhere, even in friendly nations, my country has its enemies. And I realized again what a privilege it is to call myself a citizen of the United States.
I had a similarly moving experience once while waiting in line at the border crossing in Juarez, watching the flag flying across the Rio Grande in El Paso. It happened again last year, after a long drive across Southern Alberta, as I saw the Stars and Stripes flying above a small cluster of buildings on the Montana prairie. Just over there, across an invisible line, was my country. Mexico and Canada are great nations, with their own majestic landscapes and many strong people I admire. I hope they love their country as I love mine. But for me, it is a privilege and a blessing to come home.
When I was in grade school, it was simply accepted that each morning all of us would stand, put our hands over our hearts, and recite the Pledge of Allegiance. I thought I understood what “liberty and justice for all” means; my father and uncles had fought not so very long before to defend those principles. I remember when the words “under God” were added to the pledge. While I respect anyone’s right to feel otherwise, I strongly believe those words. This is—and must be—a nation under God.
I believe we ought to recite the Pledge of Allegiance without a comma following those two words. We need to recognize the inherent truth of “. . . under God indivisible.” This nation truly must live under God, or it certainly will be divisible. We who think of ourselves as Americans would do well to remember that we are all children of God, and thus brothers and sisters. If we forget this, we will not have the strength or determination to stand united. We must all live together “under God,” or this nation will be weakened, and in danger of falling.
This is not the only country on earth with people who love liberty, and we are hardly the only people with courage and strength among us. But I believe this nation was established by God to be a beacon to those who treasure liberty and freedom of thought.
Too many people have forgotten what the American dream really is: not wealth, but opportunity. Liberty and freedom of thought offer opportunity to direct our own efforts and determine the courses of our own lives. Prosperity—what so many people come here seeking—is only a byproduct of personal choices made possible by liberty. If we see the United States of America only as a place where we can become prosperous, we may not be contributing to the strength of the nation; we may be weakening it. If we see our country as a place where we can guide our own intellectual and spiritual development, we will probably be strengthening our communities and our nation as well.
Our flag stands as a symbol of liberty and freedom of thought. Around the world, those who trample or burn it are usually the same people who are unable to tolerate the idea of God-given individual freedoms.
Freedom carries with it responsibility. We will each be responsible to God in the end for how we use the liberty He has given us, so freedom brings risks as well as opportunities. But I for one am deeply grateful for the opportunity to face those risks.