GAZING OUT across the sweltering September dusk at Independence Hall and in the company of a former U.S. president, a self-proclaimed "punk rocker from the north of Dublin" became the unlikliest winner of Philadelphia's Liberty Medal last night and then said he had something to declare:

"This is my country," said Irish rock star Bono, 47, in accepting the medal along with DATA, the African anti-poverty group he co-founded. "America is my country."

But after reminding more than 2,000 people on the lawn of the National Constitution Center of some great Americans and some great things that America has done, Bono implored "my country" to do better.

The lead singer for U2 said he found it appalling to read recently that 38 percent of Americans think that torture is an acceptable practice in the name of national security.

"I ask you to remember that you do not have to become a monster to defeat a monster," Bono said to loud applause. "Your America is better than that."

Bono's heartfelt profession of love for the United States and his stern admonition summed up the tightrope that the rock-star-turned-humanitarian steadily walks, as he seeks to work with both conservatives and liberals to win support for African causes.

His remarkable success in bridging the political divide while working with the Washington-based DATA - which stands for Debt, AIDS, Trade, Africa - is the reason he was in Philadelphia to accept the medal. DATA successfully lobbied for increased U.S. funding to fight AIDS in Africa, for development in stable nations, and for Western nations to cancel billions of dollars in debt.

Since its inception in 1989, the award has gone to a long list of freedom advocates that includes Nelson Mandela, Vaclac Havel, Kofi Annan, Bill Clinton and the man who bestowed the award around Bono's neck, ex-President George H.W. Bush. It includes a $100,000 cash prize, which Bono is handing over to the One Campaign, a grass-roots anti-poverty movement he launched here in 2004.

Needless to say, Bono - attired in his usual black, without a tie but with his trademark sunglasses - was the first rock star to receive the Liberty Medal, and he brought a jazzy and charismatic style to the outdoor ceremony, bracketed by the African Children's Choir and African poet Zakes Mda.

"After a few pints, this rock star thinks he is a philosopher," Bono said to laughter, and his brief acceptance speech squeezed in more riffs than a long solo by his bandmate the Edge, including one where he noted that Ben Franklin "wore John Lennon glasses before they were cool, and went electric before Bob Dylan."

But sandwiched in between the laughs, Bono sought to remind Americans of what this nation has accomplished, from the Peace Corps and Marshall Plan to Bruce Springsteen and Dylan, and what it has to offer.

He quickly noted that he hasn't given up his affluent lifestyle "of a rock star who stepped off a private plane," and he wouldn't expect that of others, but there are ways for everyday people to make the world better.

"How about our science, our technology, our creativity, our passion, America has so much great answers to offer?" Bono asked. "We can't fix all of the world's problems, but the ones that we can, we must."

His speech capped a whirlwind day for Bono in the city, where U2 performed before just 70 people at the Bijou Cafe back in 1980 and headlined Live Aid in London and Philadelphia just five years later.

Bono came to the Inquirer and Daily News building on North Broad Street for about 90 minutes where he briefed editorial writers and reporters on his efforts to fund vaccines and schooling for African children. His fondness for the City of Brotherly Love was apparent.

"In Philadelphia, there's a heart of the city that's . . . ," he started.

"Corrupt," Pulitzer Prize-winning Daily News cartoonist Signe Wilkinson blurted out.

"Poetry," Bono laughed, adding in response to the quip that "where there's poetry, you have darkness to extinguish it."

But last night, his focus was on a loftier view of the United States, not the rough-and-tumble of our politics.

"America isn't just a country," Bono said. "It's an idea." *