This country’s settlers escaped hundreds of years of religious wars in Europe and wanted something different. The free practice of religion soon became a bedrock of the nation they founded, even before it was enshrined in the First Amendment.
Far too many American histories these days focus on the exceptions where we haven’t lived up to the ideals of freedom, while missing the big picture: On the whole the United States has been more free than anywhere else in the world’s history. At the same time, we’ve been more prosperous. That’s not a coincidence.
People do best when they’re allowed to choose their destinies for themselves.
I glanced at some headlines this week, and you don’t have to go beyond them to see the great problems facing freedom throughout the world:
- “Iran restores internet access, but threatens more arrests of protestors”
- “Egyptian police raid country’s last independent news outlet”
- “Antigovernment protests unsettle Chile’s elite”
- “Secret documents reveal how China mass detention camps work”
- “Violence strikes Hong Kong election campaigners”
Thugs rule most of the world. That is, whoever has the biggest stick is in charge and they push everyone else around however they want. If someone challenges you, you take away their means of doing so: internet access, factual reporting about what the government is doing, the ballot box.
Taking aim at religion is also part of this strategy because it aims to control even your most deeply held personal beliefs. A galling example is what the Chinese government is doing to Uighurs, a mostly Muslim ethnic group in China’s western part. The AP published a long report Sunday based on secret documents from China that show its efforts to indoctrinate the Uighurs to believe in the country’s official atheistic communism.
These are not terrorists or criminals; their only offense is not fitting the one way to think and act that their overlords want. So they’re forced into camps. Can’t speak their native language, can’t pray, can’t leave. Classes are in Mandarin, the official Chinese government language. If you don’t respond to questions using it, you’re beaten or deprived of food for days. This is not being done on a small scale. The AP reported it’s a million people who have been sent to such camps.
With that lingering in my mind as we come to Thanksgiving here in America, our religious freedom is something I’m thankful for. Some of my own ancestors came to this country from Scotland via Ireland (thus the name “Scotch Irish”). They were run out of both countries because their religious beliefs didn’t match up with those in power. They usually came to America with nothing yet made an immeasurable impact on the development of this country. After being persecuted for decades, they found success as soon as they were free. What a lesson.
It’s something China’s party leaders will never understand. They see strength as only being possible if you root out every possible challenge.
But that’s really weakness; how strong is a system that can’t withstand even the smallest protest or it collapses? That’s evidence of a nation built on exalting its leaders at the expense of its people.
Our country is built on the exact opposite idea: Let the people build themselves up and the country as a whole will be strong.
That strength can’t be shaken easily because it’s spread wide over every individual, not centralized in a bureaucratic office, and it’s based on something within our hearts, not a military or economic advantage that can be taken away.
With all we can consider about what’s wrong with America this Thanksgiving, we can still be thankful that we’re living out the dream that all those centuries ago launched the Pilgrims’ ships out of oppression toward freedom.
Charlie Smith is editor and publisher of The Columbian-Progress. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org or (601) 736-2611.