The Catholic Thing
For July 4th: A Nation with the Soul of a Church Print E-mail
By John B. Kienker   
Thursday, 01 July 2010

If it is not heresy, then perhaps it is just bad manners to say on a website called The Catholic Thing that I find G.K. Chesterton to be better quoted than read. Some years ago when I was seeking to deepen my knowledge of the Church, Chesterton’s name came up again and again among the great modern apologists considered must-reads. When I found him quoted by other authors, I was charmed by his amusing, clever insights. So finally I dove into his book Orthodoxy . . . and had to abandon it after fifteen pages or so. Chesterton’s leisurely, rotund prose was too much for my American impatience, and after that, as far as he was concerned, I made do with what I could learn about the Catholic mind from his Father Brown mysteries (which, as it turns out, is a lot).

So, it was with some hesitation that I sought out his essay “What is America?” after being struck by his famous reply contained therein – “a nation with the soul of a church.” The essay begins, after the usual paragraph or three of throat-clearing, with Chesterton having a great deal of fun with the form he had to fill out at the American consulate for his trip abroad. For example, one question asked “Are you in favor of subverting the government of the United States by force?” to which Chesterton suggests he ought to have written: “I prefer to answer that question at the end of my tour and not the beginning.”

Laughing at others’ peculiarities is good fun, says Chesterton, but what is unfamiliar ought to make us think as well as laugh. For him, the incident was a way “to get some ultimate idea of what America is.” And what makes the United States unique, Chesterton argues, is that it is “the only nation in the world that is founded on a creed.”  That creed has at its heart an understanding of human equality, which is “set forth with dogmatic and even theological lucidity in the Declaration of Independence; perhaps the only piece of practical politics that is also theoretical politics and also great literature.”

“Now a creed is at once the broadest and the narrowest thing in the world,” Chesterton continues.  America’s creed is universal in its implications, recognizing knowable truths applicable to all men at all times. And in that sense, the country’s essence, he concludes, is “religious because it is not racial” in the way that “England is English as France is French or Ireland is Irish; the great mass of men taking certain national traditions for granted.”

At the same time, America’s creed is limiting because the creed itself defines what it is to be an American; it is the truths we hold. As Chesterton puts it, even when American pluralism is compared to a melting pot, “that metaphor implies that the pot itself is of a certain shape and a certain substance; a pretty solid substance. The melting-pot must not melt.” That solid substance – that creed – he writes, is “traced on the lines of Jeffersonian democracy.”

What Chesterton has struck upon is that for all his seeming hostility to authority, Thomas Jefferson was not opposed to orthodoxy. He was the proud father of the University of Virginia precisely because it was to be a school of republican orthodoxy, educating citizens to understand and perpetuate good government. As he wrote to James Madison, with whom he planned the curriculum, the school would be “our seminary,” in which the “vestal flame is to be kept alive.” Before devoting himself to this endeavor in his retirement, Jefferson, along with almost every other prominent American founder, had called for a national university dedicated to the same purpose. 

Chesterton recognizes that America’s is “a creed, if not about divine, at least about human things.” Some Catholics fault America’s founding principles as owing too much to the Enlightenment liberalism of John Locke, for presenting a truncated view of human nature defined exclusively by rights,  and for fostering a pursuit of private happiness however one chooses to define it. But the moral order in the Declaration is in keeping with a broad natural law tradition that includes Saint Thomas’s “five ways.” The Declaration does not preach Christ crucified because that mystery is beyond the limits of human reason and therefore, rightfully, beyond the limits of politics.

Catholic critics of the American founding overlook the character of its creed and how much it has in common not only with a church but with the Church. Such a statement may have shocked Jefferson’s decidedly nonsectarian sensibilities, but not nearly as much as the modern invention of an amoral pursuit of whatever you like, which is wholly at odds with the founders’ public philosophy. In asserting their liberty, Americans remained, as Jefferson put it, “inherently independent of all but the moral law.”

In his essay, Chesterton asserted that America will retain its original shape “until it becomes shapeless.” Today, the only truth many Americans hold to be self-evident anymore is that there is no moral truth such as Jefferson spoke of. But without moral order, there is no American creed, no shape to America, and so, in a sense, the most powerful nation on earth may have gained the world only to lose its soul.

Though ideas such as truth, virtue, and natural law may now be passé in American politics, they still retain vitality in the Catholic Church, where they were preserved and nurtured for many centuries. It falls, then, first of all to American Catholics, enlightened by their faith as G.K. Chesterton was, to understand the creed we celebrate this Independence Day, and to convert their fellow citizens to the self-evident truths we are called to affirm by the laws of nature and of nature’s God.

John B. Kienker is managing editor of the Claremont Review of Books.
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Comments (12)Add Comment
written by Jack, July 02, 2010
It is just like this website to run homophobic hate speech one day and then an article on "equality" the next. I do not understand "The Catholic Thing's" obsession with homosexuality. Do the editors doubt the intelligence of its readers? We get the point -- you want to deny gay individuals the ability to live in a recognized partnership (be it marriage or civil unions) with the person they love. You want to deny gay people the ability to protect and defend the country they love (along with Muslims apparently). You want to deny gay people the ability to engage in certain intimate acts with the (in this case) men they love.

So yes, three cheers for EQUALITY!!! (That is, if you are a white, straight, male)
written by Lee Gilbert, July 02, 2010
"It falls, then, first of all to American convert their fellow citizens to the self-evident truths...."

1. If we were not endlessly confused, bamboozled and enchanted by the mass media, the self evident truths would be exactly that, self evident. No conversion required.

2. As it is, our religious leaders have decided that it would be bad form to take a lesson from Elijah the prophet of God and to confront the false prophets and attempt to annihilate their influence in the Christian home. So then, the question becomes how can we convert our fellow citizens while leaving the sources of their confusion, bamboozlement and enchantment intact?

3. Well, we can have demonstrations, jump up and down in front of the TV cameras and make clever placards hoping to be caught on national television. Or have we done nauseam?

4. We can write indignant letters to TV producers and advertisers saying in effect, "Please, please do not take advantage of your power and our weakness by continuing to walk down our morals year after year. You have us right where you want us. Please, please, please...."

5. After the wrath of God has exhausted itself upon our country, we can point to the ruins and tell our grandchildren, "Your eyes have only to look to see how the wicked are repaid." That should be very effective. In the silence of the wasteland the self-evident truths will once again be self-evident.
Reply to Jack
written by Joe, July 02, 2010
Dear Jack:

There are countless web sites that support the homosexual agenda so you needn't complain about TCT, which is one of the few repositories of reasoned and intelligent commentary.

The Church teaches, as does Scripture, that homosexuality is sinful, along with adultery and fornication, and your assertion that TCT singles out gays for special condemnation is ill-informed. There are many other religions that tolerate homosexual behavior and you are free to follow any of them, but the Catholic Church stands firm in its denunciation of such practices.

It may be trite to say, but we Catholics do not hate the sinner, but the sin -- all sin and we can only be saved by turning away from sin and back to God, Who is ever merciful.

But He leaves us a free will to make choices, and if you choose to sin then be forewarned, as Scripture tells us, "the wages of sin is death."

Your final statement, Jack, "You want to deny gay people the ability to engage in certain intimate acts with the (in this case) men they love" is rejoined with: Your decision to engage is whatever acts you choose is yours and yours alone and you must live with the consequences of your actions.

May you find your way to the Lord.

written by Jack, July 02, 2010
Joe: Thank you for your response. You seem to believe that I am gay and non-Catholic, neither of which are true. If TCT is a repository of "reasoned and intelligent commentary," then instead of directing me to websites that promote the "homosexual agenda" (whatever that means -- as if all homosexuals think alike and pursue one, single goal) you would engage my argument that it is hypocritical to run an article one day that argues against not only same-sex marriages, but civil unions as well (and also for a re-instatement of anti-sodomy laws - a point you seemed to have missed in your rejoinder) and then the very next day praise America and the Catholic Church for its "equality."

I understand "love the sinner; hate the sin," and would certainly agree that this website has done very well at emphasizing the operative verb in the latter portion of the clause, though much less well on directing its hatred towards solely "the sin". It is unclear to me how a homosexual individual reading yesterday's post would in any way feel loved. Indeed it seems some authors on this blog love to hate the sin and care not a dime for the sinner.

Thanks for this one, John Kienker.
written by Thomas C. Coleman, Jr., July 02, 2010
Thank you for this timely and insightful article. Now, while I do not fully agree with those who find our nation's founding principles fatally flawed by notions of liberty not grounded on the Kingship of Christ, I think it is now apparent that the secular, humanist underpinngs of the fouding philosophy are insufficient to withsatnd the onslughts posed by both post-Christian pseudo-rationalist ideologies and--I'm quite serious--Islam. Our brilliant and well-intentioned 18th Century Founders did not foresee the undermining of all Western values that would follow as the West rejected Christ. If the West is not re-converted...well only God knows. The Armies of Darkness did not have to march to the Atlantic; they took over the universties and seminaries. Could the West be rallied for another Lepanto, even metaphoically speaking? It's Christ or Chaos!
Now to Joe. God love you, but you stated that the Church and Sripture hold that "...homosexuality is sinful..." I think it is more accuarte to say that the Churh holds that homosexual acts are sinful, not the inclination, which, while disordered, is not itself sinful. This is no small disticntion, and mistating the case gives ammunition to the Church's foes. Happy 4th!
More on Chesterton--and the reach of reason
written by Hadley Arkes, July 02, 2010
Thanks, John, for this fine piece, though I wouldn't share your judgment that Chesterton is too rococo, or too expansive in his prose, to be read. And I'd add one passage to your piece. Chesterton noted that the Church has not been committed to what "Jefferson or Lincoln said for democracy. ...[But] there will be rending of all religious peace and compromise ... before the Catholic Church will admit that one single moron, or one single man, 'is not worth saving.'"

There was another point, made in passing, we ought to look at again. Was the notion of "Christ crucified" really "beyond the limits of human reason"? It is surely an empirical question, open to evidence and our judgment on the evidence, as to whether it actually happened. And whether he actually came back. There were witnesses, and he showed the doubting his wounds. If all of this did happen, well ... something flows from that. And all of these are judgments bound up with evidence and the canons of reasoning. We'll need to get clear on where the mystery is to be found. But in the meantime we should not be so quick to press reason from the domain of religious conviction.
Response to Thomas and Jack
written by Joe, July 02, 2010
Thomas, yes, you are correct, in that it is the inclination towards homosexuality that the Church teaches is "intrinsically disordered" whereas the behavior can be considered sinful. My blanket use of the phrase "homosexuality" was to convey that point, but apparently it was missed.

Jack, I cannot speak to the notion of "equality," since it is an objective term. There are three ways in which we see: How we see ourselves; how others see us, and how God sees us.

I would not presume to judge anyone; that is reserved to the Lord. But my human reaction to sexual perversion is what I consider a natural or normal response. I find homosexual behavior to be repugnant and to use Scripture's word, "an abomination." If in agreeing with God's view of such activity I am in the wrong I will take my chances and be judged accordingly.
written by Thomas C. Coleman, Jr., July 02, 2010
Joe, I would like to commend you on your honesty and courage in stating that the aversion that most feel to what is cleary disordered is a natural aversion. I would add that the aversion is obejctively healthy and that we should reject as absurd the characterization of it as pathological, i.e so-called homophobia. Our culture talks constantly about sexual dsyfunction wihtout acknowledging the dynsfunctionality of inclinations and behaviors which are contrary to the obvious purposes of the sexual faculties. To deny purpose is to deny the Creator. So even if there is no "homosexual agenda" that all homosexuals have signed onto, clearly some people are cynically exploiting homosexuals to advance an agenda that is very sinister.
Last Comment
written by Jack, July 02, 2010
I will only add that further posts seem to show rather clearly that "love the sinner, hate the sin" may be a catchy slogan, but it does not hold up in terms of human experience. Who we are and what we do is far more connected than the slogan allows. It is hard to have a "natural revulsion" to something one does and at the same time claim to love (truly love) that person. After all, doesn't the Bible teach us that "whoever loves God must also love his brother?" (1 John 4:21)

Let's see TCT run an article on loving gay people.

I'll say it again, I do not think that gay persons would read the many, many posts on the topic TCT runs and feel loved.
Not really convinced
written by Mr. Minimus, July 02, 2010
Greetings. Either the United States is convinced of the creed of undefined and unlimited equality or it is dedicated to the natural law. It cannot have both. Moreover, Equality wars against Liberty, and Liberty is just as much a contender for the American "creed" as is equality. But Liberty as an orthodoxy has its problems, too.

I am sorry, but I am unconvinced that this creedal connection exists as sketched. I did learn from this article, however, that Chesterton thought America would unravel. It seems that he and Tocqueville share the same sort of insight.

Truly, I plan to be patriotic this Independence Day, but it won't be for some sort of creed or proposition. It will be for the sake of the people I have known, their traditions, their sense of "home", the noble dead, and the future we all might share in this particular nation--as opposed to a sort of virtual space.

Perhaps Chesterton would have been more critical of us if he had glimpsed that an American civil religion would eclipse Christianity (and natural law) and create a number of odd cultural outcomes. He might not have liked the "Church" that we had the "soul" of had he thought it out, say, to the extent that Tocqueville did.

I think Chesterton would have been happy to learn, however, that many of us base our lives on something more substantive than the Declaration of Independence.

With respect and best wishes to present readers, Mr. M.

Jack, final word
written by Joe, July 03, 2010
Granted, we are commanded to love one another. On the other hand, we are admonished not to be yoked with non-believers. The dilemma then is whether we can love equally or in degrees. Put it this way, Jack: Some people are more lovable than others, and there are people whom we just don't plain like.
On loving and respecting the person
written by Jack Carlson, July 03, 2010
July 4th greetings from a different Jack--one who has written a couple of columns for TCT, most recently on the reversal of a decision to hire an activist lesbian scholar as dean at Marquette University.

Although I clearly agreed with Marquette's decision, I was taken aback at the level of animus against homosexual persons reflected in certain comments on the column.

It seems to me that the Jack who posted several times on July 2 has a point: faithful Catholics should articulate in a more nuanced way, and repeatedly, how our basic attitude toward persons with homosexual inclinations is one of love and respect, even if thy act on these (to our mind, in light of natural moral law) disordered inclinations.

One thing that has made this task more difficult today, by contrast with a generation ago, is that gay and lesbian activists now tend to demand that "love and respect" show itself in moral acceptance of the behaviors in question.

Thus, once again, the need for nuance.

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