By Margot Horwitz
Nearly 200 years ago, French diplomat and historian Alexis de Tocqueville came to the United States, ostensibly to explore the new nation’s penal system. But instead of merely studying the system for his own new country, de Tocqueville spent nine months looking into the soul of America. From his travel and exploration came a remarkable book, Democracy in America, which to this day rings with truth and substance.
Among the most compelling of de Tocqueville’s reactions was finding “righteousness” in the nation’s churches. Beyond the “harbors … rivers … mines … and world commerce,” or even the “democratic Congress and matchless Constitution,” he finally understood “the secret of her genius and power. America is great because she is good, and if America ever ceases to be good, she will cease to be great.”
In our day, certainly, “churches” also means synagogues and mosques, places where the righteousness the Frenchman found still means reaching out to the less fortunate, in whatever way necessary and possible. The Hebrew phrase tikkun olam, “repairing the world,” is spot on in describing the efforts needed to bring a measure of succor to the increasing numbers of underserved, undervalued and underprivileged people in desperate need.
My own temple, Main Line Reform, is one of many religious institutions working to make life easier for the less fortunate. Aiding struggling refugees through HIAS, creating projects to ease the plight of the food insecure, developing libraries and literacy workshops for adults and children, and joining in marches and other gun control programs — these are only a few of our efforts. We connect throughout the year with churches and food pantries to meld a healthier community, fighting the injustice that is traumatizing so many trying to live a decent life.
The term tikkun olam was given a national spotlight in the terrific new documentary Won’t You Be My Neighbor? During the film, the late Fred Rogers — a Christian minister and television hero to children everywhere — mentions the importance of the Hebrew phrase, describing the importance of bringing goodness into the world. There are even more obstacles today than when Rogers was spreading his loving message, and the need for active involvement is critical.
When we reconsider de Tocqueville’s message, we think about our hopes for the nation. There are those who want it to be great, but how to make that happen? Through the use of blunt, bullying force against any and all antagonists?
Or perhaps by following the better angels of our nature, even when it is not easy. Whether through the words of a 19th century diplomat or a 20th century minister — or any of the thousands of folks seeking to improve the human condition — the answer is clear. Before America can be great, it must be good.
Margot Horwitz is a writer and activist based in Bryn Mawr.