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Opinion: Remembering Our Heroes

On Memorial Day, we both celebrate what made our country great and acknowledge our responsibilities for its future

Richard F. Keevey
Credit: Amanda Brown
Richard F. Keevey

Memorial Day is a very solemn day — one all Americans should remember and celebrate. It is a day to recall those who sacrificed and died in our nation's service.

The day was originally dedicated to honor Civil War soldiers; it was expanded after World War I to honor all who served this nation. Today, of course, we honor all the men and women who died — and who continue to die — defending our freedom.

Do you remember when you were little? We decorated the spokes of our bikes with red and blue crepe paper and joined a parade — joyfully and proudly waving small American flags.

Every year in our section of Philadelphia, people of all ages would join our local parade. We arrived at a designated memorial, said a few prayers, and listened to speeches about our brave soldiers.

Today, only 28 percent of Americans even know what Memorial Day is all about. And less than 5 percent plan to observe it. Why did these brave warriors give their lives? The answer is surely enumerated in the first 10 Amendments to the Constitution of the United States — otherwise known as the Bill of Rights.

But perhaps President Franklin Roosevelt summarized it best in his “Four Freedoms" speech. They fought and died for freedom of speech, freedom of worship, freedom from want, and freedom from fear.

We live in a wonderful country — a great country. To quote Willie Nelson, “I am proud to be an American."

Do we have blemishes? Have we made mistakes? Has every international war or encounter been necessary? We do have blemishes, but we remain the beacon for the world. Consider, for example, two critical hallmarks that set us aside from other nations:

  • We were the first nation to separate church and state. Some argue we should change this — but they are incorrect. Our doctrine is not against religion: Rather, it has a much deeper meaning. Just view today’s world and history. They demonstrate that separation of church and state is truly critical to our form of democracy and to reinforce individual religious beliefs.

  • We were the first truly universal nation. We have invited a diverse group of people to our shores. Yes, we have stumbled — and we still do — but our principles are strong. And even when blind prejudice raises its ugly head, we have succeeded. We have and must continue to welcome the “huddled masses.”

There were many challenges as we struggled through two centuries. Bigotry, racism, bullying, and religious fanaticism were false idols, but we always addressed them. These elements are again on the rise. To paraphrase Arthur C. Brooks, president of the American Enterprise Institute, these actions are demand–driven and inaction-driven phenomena and can only be addressed by overcoming our passivity toward these abuses. Americans need to stand up, he argues.

It took 200 years of growing pains, for example, to more fully accept African-Americans. The “I Have a Dream Speech” of Dr. Martin Luther King enabled us to address these wrongs. But as a nation we know we still have more to do.

A final thought about a current “wart.” Addressing it will not make America great again — we are great. But it will make America better. We need to correct our election laws. Specifically:

  • We need to fix the way we finance election campaigns. In the early 20th century, Teddy Roosevelt was a leader in correcting campaign financing. Today, money buys too much: The Citizens United Supreme Court decision is bad for America. We need to get money out of elections.

  • We need to standardize the way we register to vote as some states limit voter participation.

  • We need to stop gerrymandering so only certain parties can win certain districts. Today, only 50 seats in Congress are truly competitive.

  • Finally, we need a National Day for Voting — perhaps a Saturday — so every American can find it easy to vote and then go home and celebrate being an American.

What better way to honor the brave men and women who died for this nation than to ensure that all Americans have an equal vote for freedom?

A personal reflection. Have you ever visited the cemeteries in Europe where our soldiers are buried? My wife and I have. And, on each occasion — in Luxemburg, Belgium or Normandy —we cannot help shedding a tear and saying a prayer. Nothing is more moving then viewing where courageous Americans and our allies ended the brutality of Nazism. We honor on Memorial Day the lives of the men and women who fought America's battles and who sacrificed for the freedom that we enjoy today.

Lincoln said it best at Gettysburg:

“That from these honored dead we take increased devotion to the cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion. And that we hereby resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain. And that this nation under God shall have a new birth of freedom. And that the government of the people, by the people and for the people shall not perish from this earth.”

Richard F. Keevey is the former budget director and comptroller for New Jersey. He also was the CFO at HUD, deputy undersecretary of defense, and executive officer for a nuclear missile unit in Europe. He is currently a senior policy fellow at the Bloustein School of Planning and Policy, Rutgers University and a lecturer at the Woodrow Wilson School, Princeton University.

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