The American Exceptionalism Thing Print
By Robert Royal   
Monday, 16 May 2011

The killing of Osama bin Laden a few weeks ago raised, yet again, the question of American exceptionalism. I was in Europe for the JPII beatification at the time and, surprisingly, most of the media over there praised the SEAL operation, as well as the only country on earth that could have carried it out.

Denial of American exceptionalism was far stronger and stranger here, tapping at moments into the deep current of self-loathing that has been with us since Vietnam. But nations are anointed at certain points, by Providence or history, to play exceptional roles: Greece, Rome, Israel, France, Italy, England, and – for the past century – America.

Benedict XVI has for years, going back before his election as pope, talked about the prominent religious role America plays in the modern world. At Vatican II, for instance, American bishops exerted no little influence on opinion about religious liberty. As the one modernized nation that retains a strong popular religiosity, this country may be the place where the dialogue between a renewed Christianity and modern culture is either won or lost.

Or if demographics shift the cultural dynamic, maybe we – like Europe – will  fall into a sterile, technologized senility, to be left in the dust by the burgeoning Christian movements in Africa and Asia, even under authoritarian systems like China’s.

Nations often misunderstand themselves; the American historian Gordon Wood’s new book The Idea of America, devotes a whole chapter to explaining how early America aspired in several respects to be the reincarnation of the ancient Roman Republic. Item: a certain Joseph Warren “wore a toga while delivering the Boston Massacre oration in 1775.”

This suggestive scene is worth remembering the next time someone tells you that Roman Catholicism is based on a foreign, European tradition. The whole eighteenth century – from Gibbon in The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire to the French revolutionaries – was a little drunk on an imaginary Rome. But at least they had a deep historical appreciation of what is at stake in a democratic republic.

We’ve now rejected not only ancient faith but also ancient reason in the form of limited, but workable public institutions that balanced order and liberty about as well as they can be in our fallen world. The French writer Charles Péguy often said that the de-republicanization of France was part of the same movement as its de-christianization. Something similar, though not quite so thorough, happened in this country over the last century.

We still have a clear enough sense of the truth and the will in certain quarters to fight back. Let no one be deceived: despite current illusions, a de-christianized America will not be a free America. It will be a place in which the crisis of modern humanism shows its ultimate poverty. Human beings who are merely clever animals, open to nothing larger than themselves or this world, will turn on one another, out of frustration at lack of recognition of the deepest human things, if not worse.    

Keeping the cause alive in publications like the present one is important not only for American Catholics, but – in all humility about the unworthiness of the vessels – for America and the world. You may have noticed the links to our French, Italian, Slovak, and Spanish partners on this site. Click on those links. You’ll see much that’s still alive among Catholics in other countries. But they look to us – and say so openly – to advance arguments harder to make in their own circumstances. For good and for bad, the mere fact that something comes from America gives it greater cultural power.

Conversations with these partners – we are hoping to announce a couple of other languages soon – coupled with the generosity of a particularly far-seeing donor have convinced us that it’s time for The Catholic Thing to expand. Don’t worry. The daily column that you have come to appreciate in this space will continue to appear in the same format. And you’ll soon be seeing some new writers who will enrich our conversations.

Beginning on July 1, we will launch a new page that will bring you the best news and commentary, as well as several other features available online. We already have lots of ideas about what this will mean. But we would like to invite our readers to tell us what you think would serve cosa nostra, our “thing,” which seeks to be a reasoned voice of informed Catholicism in this country and the rest of the world.

This is also the time of the year when I must ask you to be generous, as you have been in the past. We have some very generous larger donors, and without them we would simply disappear. But we also still depend for a significant portion of our operating expenses on each of you, our readers. I’m not going to tell you what you already know about the value of the work you read here. I remain too convinced of the intelligence and good will of our readers to engage in the kind of fundraising hype all-too-common online.

For this period of expansion, I ask everyone who can to do what you’ve done in the past: $25 for a stimulating daily read (we’ll soon be coming to you on Saturdays and Sundays, as well). That’s seven days a week, every week on the month, 365 days a year.

You all know that not everyone who wants to help can. So if you find yourself in fortunate circumstances, could you send $50, $100, or more, on behalf of yourself and other friends of this site. Please, do your part to keep this exceptional American phenomenon we call The Catholic Thing going strong – and now poised to offer an even bigger and better service, with your help, to the Church and the world.   

Robert Royal is editor-in-chief of The Catholic Thing, and president of the Faith & Reason Institute in Washington, D.C. His most recent book is The God That Did Not Fail: How Religion Built and Sustains the West, now available in paperback from Encounter Books.

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