The United States has been at war with ISIS for more than a year, and with Islamic extremism for nearly a decade and a half. But beyond defending the homeland against terrorism, U.S. leaders have not offered a compelling answer to this vital question: What is it that America is fighting for?
The question has taken on new urgency as electoral politics has driven a surge of illiberal populism, not only in the United States but in many European democracies. America will not defeat the grave challenge it faces by retreating from its core principles. When societies fall out of touch with their most elevating, unifying beliefs, they decline into cynicism and sloth. This is how states and civilizations decay and disappear.
From the very beginning, the unifying American principle has been freedom. For almost two and a half centuries, Americans have held these truths to be self-evident: that all people “are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights.” Among these were the natural rights to institute a government “of, by and for the people”; to think, speak, publish, worship, assemble, and organize freely; and to have these rights protected by an independent judiciary.