Remembering Who We Are – and Why

During John Paul’s beatification, there were posters all around Rome displaying the Italian Constitution article 1: “Italy is a democratic Republic founded on labor.” I don’t know if this was a campaign by anti-Catholic elements specially aimed at the beatification – that sort of thing is hardly unknown in Rome. But I asked several Italians, individually, what it meant. Some Marxist theory of work and social value, from the days right after World War II when the Italian Communist Party was strong?

Their unanimous opinion: Not even that.  “Nothing. It doesn’t mean anything.”

It’s worth remembering on Memorial Day that a similar phenomenon plagues most Western nations – though not America. (Or at least not the America that existed until courts got busy reworking our foundations.) Most countries are essentially founded on nothing, or on passing abstractions quite unlikely to provide much stability and energy.

Professor Arkes often remarks that the opening of Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address offers a clue to how we used to think about America. If you count back from 1863 to the “four score and seven years ago,” the point at which Lincoln and his listeners believed “our forefathers brought forth on this continent a new nation,” you don’t come to the date of the Constitution (1787, ratified in 1788). You get 1776, the year when the Declaration of Independence famously said: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” 

The Creator is not further specified and the Rights listed are susceptible to debate. But this is the starting point for a vision of social order that set the foundations on the most unshakeable ground of all: God Himself. The signers knew that they were risking everything – their lives fortunes and sacred honor, as they wrote. And explicitly chose to do so “with a firm reliance on the protection of Divine Providence.”

The American Jesuit John Courtney Murray, a scholar who tried to bring out the natural law elements in the American Founding – as undeveloped and sometimes tenuous as he knew them to be – argued that there are three solid deduction from our founding. First, there are truths – important truths. Second, we human beings can know them. And last, and far from least, we – we Americans – hold these truths, that is we embrace them as the ground on which we stand. 

On Memorial Days, we still talk a fair amount about the sacrifices brave citizens have made to defend this nation. But any country could say that in honor of its military; the specific difference for us is the kind of social order preserved by our brave men and women. In small towns and neighborhoods across the country, despite elite pressures, that America will be honored today.

The American cemetery in Normandy, France

Because our independence was not declared in a fit of mere revolutionary passions, but in a well-reasoned effort to put the case before the judgment of the world:

When in the Course of human events it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another and to assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and of Natures God entitle them, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation.

Proud as we are, for the most part, of the history that followed, it’s remarkable how far we are today from such ways of thinking in our public discourse. It’s a slight exaggeration – but only a slight one and who knows for how long? – to think that such words might be judged “unconstitutional” in some quarters, with their references to nature and Deity as a standard of behavior for individuals and nations alike. Note to Supreme Court: No right for everyone to define “the meaning of the universe” there.

There are critics who look at our history of slavery, mistreatment of Native Americans, and periodic military misadventures, and cynically dismiss all the good things that came from our founding – not least a blessed stability. America is the oldest continuously functioning democracy in the modern world. We’ve been so successful on that score that the radical critics take it for granted. But we cannot and should not. France is working on its fifth republic (inaugurated in 1958) over almost exactly the same time as America has existed.

Denver Archbishop Charles Chaput, of native American ancestry himself, has said that – despite our own failures – we can see that the ideals were right and that we should affirm what was good in the founding and seek to extend it to more and more people.

But his voice is all too rare among religious leaders today. It’s difficult to say exactly why, but it seems that the relative prosperity and peace we enjoy have blinded us to the fact that they do not come to us all as a birthright. That they need defending, both in the world and in the world of thought and devotion.

We seem to think that our religious foundations and confidence in the energies of a free people under God are antiquated notions in an age when government can provide for our comforts and welfare without much effort or struggle. The mere thought of trimming “entitlements” seems to put us in a panic.

Most modern societies think prosperity something to be pursued for its own sake, and anything higher can be left to chance. Far different the words of Psalm 49:

Man in his prosperity forfeits intelligence:
                 he is one with the cattle doomed to slaughter.

On Memorial Day, it’s good for us to remember that we did not get prosperity and liberty without costs and sacrifices, and that we will not keep them without understanding whence they come and on what they are based.

Robert Royal is editor-in-chief of The Catholic Thing and president of the Faith & Reason Institute in Washington, D.C. His most recent books are Columbus and the Crisis of the West and A Deeper Vision: The Catholic Intellectual Tradition in the Twentieth Century.