“My Country, May She Always Be Right . . .”

The time after the Fourth of July is a good one to think about the topic of “My Country.” Most of us are familiar with Stephen Dectaur’s after dinner toast of 1820: “Our Country! in her intercourse with foreign nations, may she always be in the right, but right or wrong, our country!” This same toast was taken up in 1872 in the Senate by Carl Schurz: “My country, right or wrong, if right, to be kept right; and if wrong to be set right.”

We generally are more comfortable with the second, Schurz’s formulation. But we assume that Decatur’s toast was not intended to foster bad decisions in foreign affairs, the rightness or wrongness of which was not always immediately to be seen. A government whose decisions were unwise or imprudent could, if its institutions were sound, be expected to correct itself.

Yet the literal formula of “my country, right or wrong” as such is an unsettling one, however noble its intent. Loyalty to a nation or any other organization, including religious orders and universities, cannot avoid asking whether that to which we are loyal is itself worthy or under our sole jurisdiction. Behind this consideration is the general Aristotelian principle that “if man were the highest being, politics would be the highest science.” But since man is not the highest being, it is a foundational principle of politics itself that it is not the final word when it oversteps its own limits.

This restriction too is the meaning of the great Socratic principle that “it is never right to do wrong.” The American political regime was implicitly established so that these latter two principles could be respected by both citizens and politicians.

This country is said to be founded on a written Constitution that bound and limited governments by clearly stated principles, grounded in reason. This grounding needed explicit or habitual reaffirmation by the generations who were born into the regime after the original establishment. Assuming that subsequent governments would adhere to such principles, citizens, if they were virtuous, could, with a clear conscience, adhere to such a regime as well as to the transcendent order that it presupposed.

       The rapidity with which the basic standards of civilization are being undermined
in this country is obvious to everyone but the blind.

The Constitution assumed a fundamental distinction between right and wrong. Arbitrary government did not just mean rule according to the personal will of officials or citizenry, but rule that acknowledged no standards that would ground right and wrong. The notion of a “living Constitution” that replaces the written Constitution comes closer to the latter understanding than the former.

A wide divergence of political or economic policies designed for a limited good that included every citizen was to be expected. “Politics” was about these differing ways of prudence. Man was still understood, however, to be a certain kind of being, well described in religious and philosophic documents.

Government was not designed to change man into something else, but to make it possible for him to develop and flourish as a human being. “Man did not make himself to be man,” as Aristotle put it. Things higher than politics existed, the knowledge of which freed politics from claiming for itself a god-like power to define what is human and what is not, what is good and what is evil.

By the year 2011, one can no longer assume that “my country” will not enact laws and policies that change man into a different kind of being from what he is created as and intended to be. It is not preposterous to imagine Christians, at least those who do not capitulate to relativist standards, soon standing before judges and politicians, and declared evil for upholding standard reason and revelation about what a human being is. The rapidity with which the basic standards of civilization are being undermined in this country is obvious to everyone but the blind. This rush itself reveals something deceptive, if not diabolical. It is passed off as ordinary politics, but it is clearly more than that.

The welcome “secularity” that Benedict XVI has often spoken of concerning the American regime was based on the idea that the things that were not Caesar’s were safe and respected by a regime that knew its own limits. A regime that limited itself to a temporal good was also one that understood what man, woman, and family were in their being and nature.

Benedict himself, of course, in Spe Salvi, showed considerable awareness of the nature of modern political regimes. The American regime during much of its history has been protected – largely because of its constitutional limitations and its religious and philosophical common sense – from making politics to be the defining instrument of reality. This protection no longer exists. “My country” is now quite busy itself, defining right and wrong contrary to any transcendent understanding of what man is.

James V. Schall, S.J. (1928-2019), who served as a professor at Georgetown University for thirty-five years, was one of the most prolific Catholic writers in America. Among his many books are The Mind That Is Catholic, The Modern Age, Political Philosophy and Revelation: A Catholic Reading, Reasonable Pleasures, Docilitas: On Teaching and Being Taught, Catholicism and Intelligence, and, most recently, On Islam: A Chronological Record, 2002-2018.

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