A priest, long known and admired, told me not long ago about a drive he and some priest-friends once took from the Pacific Northwest to Chicago. Passing through the beautiful American landscape, even though it took days, they never tired along the way: “You really just felt proud of America.”
My wife, an immigrant, sometimes speaks in similar tones. Her parents, Ukrainian Christians, met in a Nazi work camp and, determined not to return to the Soviet Union, escaped on bicycles to France. They waited a decade there for the immigration papers that let them come here. Years later, when they were naturalized as citizens, they felt proud and grateful for the opportunity to live free in their new homeland.
Corny old nineteenth- and twentieth-century stories to our sophisticated twenty-first-century elites, of course. But they continue to happen, to tens of millions of our fellow citizens. And therein lies something like hope.
America has always been more than a country: a city on a hill, an errand into the wilderness, “Mother of Exiles” (Statue of Liberty, if with slighting reference to “the wretched refuse” from other nations’ “teeming shores”), and much more. And the beauty and majesty of the American landscape were – somehow, in our minds – connected with being home to a God-given freedom.
That sense of grandeur has not entirely disappeared among us – though with each passing Memorial Day it seems fainter. A veteran of Afghanistan and Iraq recently wondered whether he’d do it again. Fighting and dying to defend America now seems to enable the likes of Kim Kardashian and Kanye West to corrupt the country without fear of threat from abroad. (If you don’t know those two, no great loss and maybe a little gain.) But millions like him volunteer every year all the same.
Even the Church, he said, now seems to wink at great evils – not only sexual abuse – and neglects the demands of holiness, while he, a convert, engages in frequent examination of conscience and confession. Yet conversions continue, more than ever in some places this year.
Many of us feel the justness of the complaints in our very bones and fear for our future. So much so that it’s almost become a cliché to speak on civic holidays like today about American decline. A survey just this week found that Americans are much less happy than even a decade ago. To complain is, alas, not to correct. And anyway, there doesn’t seem to be any easy path to reform for us, even if we were ready to take it.
America has often been compared to the Roman Empire. In the decades before the birth of Christ, at the very moment when the republic was giving way to empire, Virgil wrote his great epic the Aeneid, which celebrates the old Roman virtues even as it entertains doubts about Rome’s future.
His contemporary the Roman historian Livy, in a phrase that almost everyone who studied Latin once knew by heart, instructed his reader about the story he is about to tell:
let him follow the decay of the national character, observing how at first it slowly sinks, then slips downward more and more rapidly, and finally begins to plunge into headlong ruin, until he reaches these days, in which we can bear neither our diseases nor their remedies.
Things move a lot faster today, and it’s not hard to envision the rapid rise of China or maybe a missionary Russia as our confused and overly self-critical nation stumbles on the world stage. That would be regrettable, not only for America, but also – in spite of all our manifest flaws – for the world.
A saint’s prayer for America
Because for all our woes, millions still strive to come here, legally and illegally, on account of many things that we take for granted – and despite resentments don’t know where else to look for moral leadership.
But there is nothing fated in human affairs and what has been broken or even thrown away by human foolishness may still, deo volente, be fixed or retrieved.
At the bottom of our current woes lies a question about what freedom means today. America’s founders put freedom near the center of national life, but not absolute freedom, which they regarded as “license.” In 1776, John Adams wrote in a letter that politicians:
may plan and speculate for Liberty, but it is Religion and Morality alone, which can establish the Principles upon which Freedom can securely stand. . . .They may change their Rulers and the forms of Government, but they will not obtain a lasting Liberty. They will only exchange Tyrants and Tyrannies.
Almost all the founders said basically the same. American freedom is viable – and valuable – only when it serves the good. Unlike most other countries, freedom here has been closely allied with, even derivative from, religion.
It’s the American way not to bow to any earthly power – or at least it was until recently – to be wary even of our own leaders, who are only human and, as such, to be watched to guard against the perennial temptation to tyranny.
We’re no longer a young republic, but a middle-aged empire. Happy talk about the best days lying ahead cannot assuage our fears that mere economic growth, more gadgets and entertainments, can’t help us – indeed, are part of our central problem.
But on holidays like today, it’s good to remember that this is America. New births of freedom, Great Awakenings in religion, fresh energies from immigration are recurrent threads in our story. Pray God they continue to be.