In an interview for Ken Burn’s PBS film on Thomas Jefferson, columnist George Will commented on the importance of citizens knowing the opening words of the Declaration of Independence.
“[W]e have a civil religion in this country. And [Thomas Jefferson] provided a catechism. … Want to be an American? Here’s what you will believe. No one knows how you become French. No one knows where Germany comes from—it sort of emerges from the mists. We know when we started. We know the afternoon: July 4, 1776. And we know how to become an American: You come here and you assent. Then you’re an American, just as American as anybody whose family has been here for 10 generations. You’re in. You’re it! That’s what an American is.
“What Jefferson did was, he said, ‘Here’s your catechism. We hold these truths to be self-evident: All men are created equal, endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights—life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness; that all just governments derive their justice and their legitimacy from the consent of the governed.’ You go down the list and at the end of the day say, ‘I tick them off, put them on the refrigerator door, and … see, I’m an American.'”
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The interview with George Will is available on the Internet at www.pbs.org/jefferson/archives/interviews/Will.htm.