When I arrived in Texas in August 2018 to commence studies at The University of Texas at Austin from Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, I did not have many expectations. I expected to see no more than the typical stereotypes — America’s compensation culture, materialism, and obsession for firearms. Nevertheless, I am happy to say that my three and a half years in the United States have been refreshing, enlightening, and a blessing.
Immediately upon my arrival, I was thrusted into and accepted by many communities, and I received many personal invitations to families’ homes during the holiday season. I was struck by how warmly and genuinely I was welcomed. I never felt seriously threatened or outcasted because of my foreign national origin. Despite evidence showing a decline in religiosity and an increase in the number of those who identify as “nones,” I witnessed many small but strong religious communities, where everyone knew each other by name and supported each other. The existence and flourishing of these voluntary associations that I experienced is, I believe, a sign and result of America’s historical appreciation for both individual liberty, community, openness to the outsider, and a deep sense of American exceptionalism.
The COVID-19 pandemic and the response to it, I believe, further highlights the uniqueness of America. Consider how the United States’ authorities dealt with it: through localized policies with many states emphasizing the role of individual conscience and rights. The focus and prioritization of religion was also striking to me. For instance, Texas Governor Greg Abbott ruled in-person worship services as an “essential service” in March 2020 when most Churches throughout the world were shut down. While many governments around the world have thought of or already planned on implementing national vaccine mandates, the federalism of America has allowed states to take different approaches to respond to the pandemic, prioritizing local and individual needs and conscience objections. For instance, even cities like Chicago, which have recently announced vaccine requirements for particular indoor places, have excluded houses of worship and made exceptions for individuals with religious objections.
In short, I found America to be a welcoming place of opportunity. I sensed a deep respect for individual rights and the common good. These commitments are often grounded in traditional religious beliefs and actions. These characteristics can be traced directly back to the founding era. Founding Father John Adams wrote: “Our Constitution was made only for a moral and religious people. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other.” And the Declaration of Independence reads: “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.”
These qualities of America are unique are not found in every place. Today, many threats stand between the America I have come to appreciate and love. On the one hand, the threat of authoritarianism from both the left and the right seeks to destroy legitimate personal freedom. On the other hand, there exists a current of thought that sees freedom as an end in itself without regard for any conception of the good, leading to a culture of licentiousness. These opposing forces, if left unchecked, can do much damage to the fabric and spirit of America — if they haven’t already significantly wounded it. The English historian Lord John Dalberg-Acton once defined liberty as “The delicate fruit of a mature civilization.” It would be a shame for America to go by the wayside due to negligence and passivity. It is my earnest hope that America holds on to what makes it great: its commitment to human flourishing through respecting both individual freedom and the common good.