What Does America Mean to You?

The 4th of July is every person’s chance to celebrate the nation’s birthday.  The occasion is a fun day for most, often marked with words about the special country which we share together.  And once again to honor our collective vision.

The Declaration of Independence is the focus of many speeches. Its opening words remind us of our founding ideals: We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.

Since 1776 we must acknowledge that the words are still aspirational, never fully realized.  America’s freedom is an unfinished project.  The fundamental challenge is ever present:  Are ordinary people capable of governing themselves?

The Commercial Appropriation

This spirit of the pursuit of happiness has also become entwined with  America’s commerce. In the post WWII federal highway infrastructure project, the car became a symbol of this open ended personal possibility.

In 1976, Chevrolet was the most popular car in the USA. General Motors crafted a slogan with video declaring that Chevy and the USA were one and the same: “Baseball, hot dogs, apple pie, and Chevrolet.”  The company even tried to appropriate baseball’s 7th inning stretch to celebrate its brand leadership.

Today, crowds stand to sing God Bless America. Perhaps a triumph of ideals over markets?

The Declaration and Credit Unions

I believe credit unions are themselves an expression of America’s founding document.  They also represent what makes American enterprise so powerful.

Credit unions embody more than the Declaration’s opening words about life and liberty.  Cooperatives exemplify how the document’s intent is to be realized.  The very last sentence reads:

And for the support of this Declaration, with a firm reliance on the protection of divine Providence, we mutually pledge to each other our Lives, our Fortunes and our sacred Honor.

This mutual pledge of lives, fortune and sacred honor is every credit union’s founding ethos. Moreover, like America’s political democracy, the cooperative system depends on individuals committed to the principle of citizen self-rule.

The first generation of credit union pioneers. like the founding fathers. understood both the ideals and challenges of self-government.   Credit unions are started and sustained by volunteers.   They shared funds and a commitment to address common needs.

The initial dimes and quarters may have been small, but their impact on lives was real.   Like the political colonies, these economic revolutionaries knew each other.  They joined to spread their vision of financial self-help across America.

The Challenge

While the Declaration’s truths may seem self-evident, the democratic process is an ongoing experiment.  Today almost all credit union founders have passed on—will their basic principles be sustained?

The phrase of people helping people is repeated. But the practice of cooperative democracy is often missing.   Voting is the most important lever of a free people.

As Americans progress through each life’s varied experiences, we add to our understanding of what American means-individually and collectively.

In my mind, credit unions show how the Declaration became a reality.    While America’s political and economic justice are ever-present challenges, America would be much the poorer without the power of the cooperative example.

Have a fun and grateful 4th with family, friends, and colleagues to honor America, the greatest cooperative enterprise on earth.



Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *