Christopher Flannery insists that a civic rebirth depends “on the great truths of the Western heritage” and “the liberating principles of the American Revolution and Founding ” – the foundational truths that Abraham Lincoln called the “principles and axioms of free society.”
A senior fellow at the Claremont Institute, Flannery argues that American civic education is currently “in crisis.” “From our preschools to our graduate schools,” he contends, “we are teaching our children and young people to hate their country and to hate one another.”
Understood correctly, the “first duty of civic education,” he says, “is to teach each new generation of Americans what it is about the country that makes it worthy of sacrifices.” Such education should inculcate the principles of self-government – “the common ground of the American political community” – and cultivate “friendship among citizens,” the bond that “holds countries together.” Americans need to know what “free government looks like, how it works, on what principles it is founded, how precious, rare, and fragile it is, and the virtues and sacrifices needed to preserve it.”
Although Flannery says that it “will take sustained, determined, even heroic effort in all areas of our private and public life,” he believes that a recovery of civic education is possible. He is doing his part by hosting The American Story podcast – weekly short segments (they are generally 6-7 minutes long) set to music. Debuting on Constitution Day 2019, the podcast currently features over 120 episodes.
In a mellow voice perfect for the medium, Flannery introduces listeners to the lives of notable Americans – from well-known heroes to unjustly forgotten citizens – to explain what makes “America beautiful, what makes America good and therefore worthy of love.” The American story is, in his view, the “greatest story ever written by human hands and minds.”
Formerly a professor in the Honor’s College at Azusa Pacific University, where he taught for over 30 years, Flannery highlights stories that capture the full range of the American experience. From the Pilgrims and George Washington, Civil War and the Pony Express to mountain men and Hollywood actors and actresses, baseball greats, and Martin Luther King, Jr., he covers the vast scope of the American experience.
As Flannery describes it:
In these stories, the mystic chords of memory stretch not only from battlefields and patriot graves, but from backroads, school yards, and bar stools, city halls, blues joints, summer afternoons, old neighborhoods, ball parks, and deserted beaches – from everywhere you find Americans being and becoming American.
He says that these stories are “connected to the central American story,” which is “summed up in three documents: the Declaration of Independence, the Gettysburg Address, and King’s ‘I Have a Dream’ speech.” These teach Americans that “the aspiration of every generation” should be to live up to the core principle of natural human equality. “Rising to equality, as Lincoln put it, is the greatest possible earthly benefit,” he argues, because “it requires and activates all the moral and intellectual virtues in each of us and unites the country in ennobling friendship.”
Flannery owes his understanding of America to his teacher Harry Jaffa, who taught for decades at Claremont McKenna College and died in 2015. “Jaffa achieved a kind of philosophic poetry about America,” Flannery recalls, “that is like the best of Lincoln’s speeches and like some of the great documents of American history.”
Growing in influence since it began, the podcast is currently averaging 9,100 downloads per episode. The most popular episodes feature American heroes including Michael Patrick Murphy and Chesty Puller and Americans who are more interesting than most realize, such as actress Hedy Lamarr. Other episodes offer valuable overviews of the antislavery character of the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution.
Flannery started the podcast to showcase the sacrifices Americans must continue to make for their country. On this important theme, he recounts the story of Nathan Hale, a revolutionary who was captured by the British and hanged. On the scaffold before his death, Hale famously said, “I only regret that I have but one life to lose for my country.” Flannery says that a civic rebirth will require that same courage and spiritedness. “America will always need citizens willing to give ‘the last full measure of devotion,’” in Lincoln’s words, and “defend our lives and liberties as Americans when needed.”
He hopes that the podcast will “awaken the better angels of our nature and welcome us into and encourage us to enrich the great American Story.”
Mike Sabo is the editor of RealClear’s American Civics portal.