America: In Search of Our Lost Mission

As a child of the 1950s and 60s, this Spirited Reasoner recalls our nation’s collective spirit of optimism. It was perhaps best expressed by President John F. Kennedy’s strategic vision(s) of landing an astronaut on the moon within ten years, establishing a Peace Corps designed to share American know-how with people living in underdeveloped countries at no cost to them, and our willingness to stand for freedom against the tyranny of Communism, whether in West Berlin or elsewhere. If anyone doubted the rosy nature of our future, they needed only to visit Tomorrowland or EPCOT Center to experience the way we would all certainly travel by monorail, dispose of our waste products via vacuum tubes, and grow our produce hydroponically. If there remained any doubters to the fact that our nation was marching toward a brighter future, perhaps Republicans who didn’t vote for Kennedy, one needed only to point to the rapid expansion of President Eisenhower’s interstate highway system.

America was growing. Progress was good.

When that spirit languished during the 1970s after the combined traumas of the Kennedy assassination, the quagmire of Vietnam, the Watergate scandal, and the OPEC oil embargo, another politician arose to meet the challenge. President Ronald Reagan spoke of his vision of the United States as a “city on a hill.” He referred to that vision throughout his 1980 campaign, then summarized it in his farewell address to the nation in January 1989: “In my mind it was a tall, proud city built on rocks stronger than oceans, wind-swept, God-blessed, and teeming with people of all kinds living in harmony and peace; a city with free ports that hummed with commerce and creativity. And if there had to be city walls, the walls had doors and the doors were open to anyone with the will and the heart to get here. That’s how I saw it, and see it still.”

These days, I wonder how many conservative Republicans, many of whom purport to worship Ronald Reagan, would agree with his notion that our nation’s doors should be “open to anyone with the will and heart to get here”? Contrast the Reagan sentiment with the Trumpian call to “Build that Wall.” But that’s beside the point of this blog post. Our point is that the collective mission(s) we once embraced under leaders like Kennedy and Reagan are now long gone. I suspect that if we were to ask a high-school-aged student what America stands for in today’s world, we might get a blank stare in return.

President Biden’s call for the United States to engage in leadership to combat a global pandemic is a start. So is a call for us to repair our aging infrastructure. But neither call carries with it the inspiration tone of space travel, world peace, or the establishment of a gleaming city that beckons to refugees “with the will and heart to get here.” Children across our great nation are aching for a call to action—one aimed at engaging not only our hands but also our hearts and minds.

Am I talking about a new Civilian Conservation Corps like the one established by President Franklin D. Roosevelt? A revitalized and better funded Peace Corps? Some other dream that would capture the enthusiasm of young people from cities to small towns to farms large and small? America seems poised to embrace a bold vision like that.

Bring it on.