“We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union ...”

These words were written more than 200 years ago as the opening words of the preamble to one of the greatest documents we have: the U.S. Constitution. Yet despite the Constitution being considered the highest law in the land, it’s preamble is not considered law. It cannot be used as the foundation for litigation in our courts, and it cannot be used to support or deny rights in this country. So, then, what purpose do these words serve?

These words serve a purpose higher than law. They are a goal and a promise set forth by our forefathers. The preamble is the guiding hand of the founders of this country, a reminder of where true patriotism lies, in the continued quest to find that “more perfect union.” If we look at these words upon which the Constitution rests — the very foundation of our great country — we can clearly see our forefathers’ vision of patriotism.

Sometimes, to understand a lofty ideal such as patriotism, it is easier to start with describing what it is not. Patriotism does not mean blind fealty or uncritical support for a party’s elected officials or even for the country itself. That is more appropriately called “nationalism” — a threat that the military has ranked as a national security risk on par with ISIS and al-Qaida. Veterans like me know the difference between true patriotism and hollow nationalism. That kind of blind and empty patriotism is exactly what George Washington warned us about when he cautioned against the “impostures of pretended patriotism.”

Instead, we need to understand and emphasize that American patriotism and love of country means that we affirm, and service members are prepared to defend, a commitment to a set of ideas best summarized in the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution of the United States. These ideals evoke a sense of freedom, equality, justice, and opportunity. Devotion to country is not about misleading slogans and empty gestures. Instead, it is about ideals, and the hope that this nation can serve as an example to the rest of the world. President Reagan got it right when he said that “My fondest hope for each one of you … is that you will love your country, not for her power or wealth, but for her selflessness and her idealism.”

In defending our basic principles and institutions, true patriots support efforts to form a “more perfect union.” To that end, patriotism also means caring enough about our country to try to correct it when it goes astray. When Martin Luther King Jr. spoke out against the Vietnam War, he explained simply, “I criticize America because I love her. I want her to stand as a moral example to the world.”

Flag-draped, sycophantic allegiance is not patriotism — it hurts our reputation, and is an affront to our institutions. This is not to say that we should deny unflattering truths about our country’s conduct. We should not whitewash history to paint ourselves in a better light. We should acknowledge our shortfalls, and continue striving to create “a more perfect union.” But it can be hard to acknowledge that our country has erred and committed hideous crimes. Admitting mistakes and attempting to atone for them, however, is a patriotic act. And we can acknowledge our shortfalls, while still adhering to the notion that the United States is an exceptional nation.

In the course of human history, on July 4, 1776, it was unprecedented to dedicate a nation to the ideals of equality, individual rights, and self-government instead of to blood or soil. American exceptionalism derives from different premises: a bedrock commitment to our freedom and liberty; the exceptionally high value we place on opportunity, even at the expense of stability; and our commitment to equality even when it disturbs long-held legal and cultural norms.

Speaking on the Fourth of July a few years before the Civil War, the great American patriot Frederick Douglass asked a difficult question: “What to the Slave is the Fourth of July?” Though a free man, this African American hero was asked to speak at a Fourth of July parade in honor of freedom and justice. But these principles were not available to Black men, and he loved his country enough to take the opportunity to ask how the great principles embodied in that Declaration of Independence could be extended to all men. It should not be political to state that there are inequities in this country.

Our forefathers knew the union they were forming was not perfect, and left it up to us to continue to strive to make it “more perfect” with each passing year. We need to claim, without pretense or apology, an honorable place in the long tradition of those who demanded that American ideals apply to all people, and oppose the efforts of those who try to reserve them only for privileged groups and causes.

The foundation of this nation came directly from “we the people” — not the government, not political parties. It was a gift given — and a gift many have given their lives to defend. It is up to us to continue to protect this gift for our children and those who come after. We have a responsibility to future generations to continue to strive for that perfect union dreamed of so long ago.

Do not allow our celebrations today to be a sham. This Fourth of July, commit to standing with “we the people” to form that more perfect union our forefathers dreamed of. Whether we turn to the declarations of the past, or to the professions of the present, I urge you to join me and commit to being loyal and true to what is just and fulfills the promise given to us by our first patriots. Commit with me, to that kind of Independence Day.

Will Atkins, a U.S. Air Force veteran of 19 years, served six deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan as a political-military strategist. He currently teaches American government and national security courses at the U.S. Air Force Academy, and is a democracy advocate with Common Defense.

Editor’s note: This is an op-ed and as such, the opinions expressed are those of the author. If you would like to respond, or have an editorial of your own you would like to submit, please contact Military Times managing editor Howard Altman, haltman@militarytimes.com.

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