When I was a child, my father always told me there were two kinds of people: “makers and takers.” Some people made things and made nations while others took things and took down nations.
During a recent trip to Manhattan, I thought of my father’s words as I looked out over Bowling Green Park, the place where patriots toppled the gilded statue of King George in July 1776 after the first reading of the Declaration of Independence.
And I thought of them again when I looked at Lady Liberty, proudly holding her torch of freedom in the harbor since 1886. Behind her, from 1882 to 1934, Ellis Island and the Port of New York greeted those to whom 100 million Americans now trace their roots.
For these people and many others, America has been a liberty maker. And there’s never been a more important time in America’s history to remember that than now.
This was hard on my mind as I looked at a high-rise with multimillion-dollar condominium apartments — one owned by a gentleman whose grandfather stepped off a boat on Ellis Island with little more than his faith, his heritage, and the clothes on his back.
He worked for liberty and received it.
As I took in these things, I was less than a five-minute walk from the New York Stock Exchange. It stands where the Dutch started the New Amsterdam Exchange under a button tree in 1792. Nearby is Federal Hall — reconstructed in the early 19th century — on the balcony of which George Washington became the first constitutional president in 1789. Down Broadway a few more minutes is Saint Paul’s Chapel, where the new president stopped to pray and worship before joining inaugural festivities.
One cannot help but be impressed by all that stands here. Yet we must not forget that it all rests on a foundation of religious liberty and rights of conscience that in many ways was responsible for making New York the refuge it became for millions of people — the “tired … poor … huddled masses yearning to breathe free.”
However, today’s liberty takers would dismiss religious liberty and rights of conscience even while giving lip service to both. They view the economics tied to Wall Street as something outside a moral system, and Bowling Green Park as a nice place to people watch, but little more.
In this, they demonstrate their propensity to view America and American institutions existentially, thus reducing them to a utilitarian-like dimension that leaves them emptied of deeper meaning.
But the Statue of Liberty is more than just an object in which one can ascend 354 steps in order to view New York Harbor, just as Federal Hall is more than just a place where Congress used to convene or where our first president used to stand. Instead, they are reminders — markers in this 21st-century road — pointing beyond themselves to the very liberty our Founding Fathers so desperately fought to protect.
It’s only when we see these historic edifices in this light that we see their real grandeur.
For example, it isn’t the manicured lawn or architecture of the immigration museum on Ellis Island that tugs at our heartstrings. Rather, it’s the fact that freedom is so valuable that millions upon millions risked everything to get there.
They were among the “makers” my father told me about.
Alan Sears is a former federal prosecutor who held various posts in the departments of Justice and Interior during the Reagan administration. He is president and CEO of Alliance Defending Freedom, (www.alliancedefendingfreedom.org), an alliance-building legal ministry that advocates for the right of people to freely live out their faith.