Recently, a rabbi who knows of my work promoting civic education in our schools asked me, “Are you an American first or a Jew first?”
At first, I didn’t know how to respond. After a moment, I said, “Well, I am Jack Miller first. I was born in America and love it for the freedom I have to achieve my goals through my own abilities and hard work. I also was born a Jew, which has taught me how to live a good life and be responsible to myself and others.”
Then I started to think about how someone could try to categorize me. Yes, I am a Jew and a patriotic American. Beyond that, I am white and male. I am also a college graduate, businessman, philanthropist, husband, father, grandfather, great-grandfather (which also puts me into the old category), and the list goes on.
Over the next few months, I kept reflecting on the rabbi’s question and my answer. And it brought to mind what’s going on in our society today, where some are consumed with classifying Americans by categories like race, sex, sexual orientation, and religion.
It seems to me that breaking down people into endless categories is exactly the opposite of what Martin Luther King, Jr. fought so hard for – his dream that we should be judged not by the color of our skin but by the content of our character. The power of the ideas in our Declaration of Independence – the natural rights we all possess no matter our race, religion, or sex– are far more powerful than limitless categories created by activists.
Of course at the founding of our nation, slavery, racism, and discrimination certainly existed, but they were completely at odds with the principles of the Declaration. In the following centuries, these evils have been dramatically reduced by staying true to our founding principles – not rejecting them. We must work hard to continue this project of liberty for all – not forcing people into categories that overlook what we have in common.
Our national motto is “E Pluribus Unum,” which means out of many, one. Our Declaration boldly and unequivocally states that all deserve to have their rights be secured. Grounded in this understanding of justice, the 14th Amendment states that “no person” shall be deprived of “life, liberty or property without due process of law” and that all will receive “equal protection of the laws.”
This is the vision for our country, a vision not yet realized but one we are much closer to attaining. But our progress is threatened by the emphasis today on putting people into categories and demanding special rights for some and approbation for others.
So back to that question the rabbi asked me, “Am I an American first or a Jew first?” My answer is that I am Jack Miller, an individual. This should be the answer that every American should have. We are all individuals first, not just part of some category based on outward appearance.
As Americans, we live in a country where we can pursue our own happiness, to succeed or fail, based on our individual abilities and desire to work hard to achieve our goals. As individuals living where our equality and individual rights are recognized, we should assume the responsibility for our own lives, for our successes and failures. We should not let an endless array of categories determine who we are.
Jack Miller is the founder and chairman of the Jack Miller Center, a 501(c)(3) organization that promotes the teaching of America’s founding principles and history by supporting professors and programs on campuses nationwide as well as courses for K-12 teachers that help them build engaging lessons for their students.