“What makes America great?’ It’s a complex question I’ve been pondering for a while now.

It sounds simple, but it’s deceivingly complex. We have a general idea, sure, but that’s about it. If I asked you what makes America great, you’d probably say “The freedoms” and that’s true. But I think saying just that does a great disservice to our country. Because when I look to the sky and see this symbol of the 50 stars and 13 stripes, and think about what it’s there for, I don’t know if we fully realize what makes America great.

So to understand this question, we need to go back and know why we are here in the first place. In the early 1600’s, we were unhappy with the way of life back in Europe. We decided to go in search of the Indies, and instead, we found a place we were told didn’t exist. As we settled here and practiced the freedom of religion, we started thinking bigger and brighter. We said, “What if we could have more than just the freedom of religion? What if we could say whatever we truly felt, without being silenced by our government? What if we built a better place for our children so that if they work hard and honest that they, too, can hold the highest office in the land?”

These thoughts and more led us down a path of independence and freedom from Great Britain. As we formed our government and our ways of life, we created a democracy that, in my opinion, is one of the highlights in human history. The idea that you and I could live next to each other, that I could celebrate Hanukkah and you could celebrate Christmas, and somebody else could celebrate nothing, and we wouldn’t kill each other is baffling.

It seems simple now, but the radical ideas our country was founded upon in the 1700’s give us more than some countries today. In other societies, the right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness seem like a dream more than a reality. Independence is regarded as foolish, and people must conform to what their government says they can do, what they can say, what they can believe. To be an American citizen and practice these freedoms is a gift as much as it is a right.

The thing is, American isn’t perfect. No country is. Our people aren’t perfect, our system isn’t, but it’s what we have. To quote a wise world leader “Democracy is the worst form of government, except for all the others.” Meaning that while it isn’t perfect, it’s far better than the alternatives. Our history isn’t perfect either. Our ancestors took this land by force, they had slaves working our fields, they’ve been corrupt and selfish. But we don’t run from it. No, we embrace their, and by extension our, shortcomings and we do better, because being an American means being discontent with the status quo. It means going “We can do better than this.” It means leading by example so the rest can follow in our footsteps.

Being an American isn’t about being perfect, but always moving forward and striving for a better tomorrow. I believe these American ideals, if we hold onto them, will carry us to places we could never dream of. They will build bridges, they will help to mend the broken, and most of all they will make America great. I believe America isn’t one thing. It isn’t one political view, it’s not one kind of language, it’s not one kind of color and it’s not one kind of prayer. I believe there is a place for everyone in American if you act honest and true, if you work hard and fair, but most importantly if you pledge allegiance to the flag of the United States of America. To put your loyalty and faith in the symbol we hold high above us, and to the Republic for which it stands….For the constitutional rights and responsibilities meant for every citizen of every kind.

For our land of the free and the home of the brave, we must be one nation, under God, indivisible, that through disagreements and fights we can find love in our hearts for our American brothers and sisters. That we can stand together when the hard times come, and we can persevere through them because, if we don’t, we will not have liberty and justice for all, and all the people who have fought for it will have died for nothing. There will be no meaning behind the broad stripes and bright stars we proudly hailed at the twilight’s last gleaming. I believe if we hold ourselves to a higher standard, the standard set above us, in our schools and our buildings, around our country and on the moon, that we will be what makes America great.

So to answer the question in its entirety, I don’t think that our freedoms are the only thing that makes America great. I believe that we the people make America great. Thank you.

Brandon Nims, who was the Elmer Goche VFW Post 3922 (Wadena) Voice of Democracy winner, was selected from a field of 25 entrants to Post 3922 and from a field of 20 entrants to the VFW Sixth District. The Voice of Democracy is an audio-essay contest for students in grades 9-12. Brandon’s essay and recording will be forwarded to the MN Department VFW Voice of Democracy competition. Brandon and his parents have been invited to the MN Department VFW Mid-Winter meeting in January at which time the state winner will be announced.