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By Brandon Millett >> Philanthropy Roundtable

After more than a year of lockdowns and social distancing, last month America celebrated its 245th birthday with vigor. More than 132 million people took to trains, planes and automobiles to hit the beaches, grill some meat and watch the fireworks this past Fourth of July.

And while the enthusiastic embrace of the holiday is certainly a welcome sign the world is getting back to normal, how many people knew exactly why we were celebrating?

A number of surveys suggest many Americans are confused about the meaning behind the holiday. For example, nearly one-in-four can’t name the country from which the United States won its liberty, according to Marist. (Guesses included Afghanistan, Brazil and Canada.)

According to Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor, this type of ignorance about America’s founding is “a bit scary.”

“You can’t save our democracy unless you understand it. Have knowledge about it. And know what you can do,” said Sotomayor during a recent webinar entitled, “Civics as a National Security Imperative,” hosted by The Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) and the National Security Institute (NSI) at George Mason University’s Antonin Scalia Law School.

Fellow Supreme Court Justice Neil Gorsuch also participated in the discussion and was dismayed by the lack of understanding many Americans have about the country’s origin story and our role as citizens in protecting the republic.

Noting that only one-in-three Americans can name all three branches of government, Gorsuch said, “I don’t know how you effect change if you don’t know how the system works.”

The April CSIS/NSI webinar covered a wide range of topics, including the state of civics education, the role of the courts in maintaining public trust, the lack of civility in public discourse, civics and national security. Below are some highlights.

On the level of discord in politics:

“These are the scariest of times and the most exciting of times,” Justice Sotomayor said in her opening remarks, pointing to the record levels of voting, but also noting the partisan rancor infecting civil discourse.

“[We need to] learn how to talk to each other. How to discuss things with each other. And how to change things in a positive rather than in a negative way. And that’s what civic participation is about. It’s about teaching people about our institutions, about their importance, their strengths and their fragility. And engaging people in being active participants in change with knowledge and with passion but without hatred.”

According to Justice Gorsuch, democracy can only function when we “disagree kindly with respect for one another’s differences and different points of view,” using the High Court as a model.

“I think our Court is a pretty good example of how democracy is supposed to work. You have people from all across the country with radically different experiences.  And different points of view. But all of whom share a love for this country and a love for our Constitution. And more than that really love one another, and respect one another, and listen to one another.”