For July 4th: A Nation with the Soul of a Church Print
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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