What’s Right with the World

When times are unusually troubled, when both Church and State seem to generate rather than solve problems, when human things make even less sense than usual (which is never very much anyway), the first duty of a Catholic or any responsible person is not to lose his head. Or to lose heart. Because goodness still lives, always, deeper down, and needs our wiser commitment, especially at those times we may be tempted to doubt it.

Today we commemorate one of the great human things of modern times – the date 241 years ago that America formally declared independence. A disturbing mark of the current moment is that we seem to confuse patriotism, which is one of the natural human sentiments, a form of gratitude really for what we have received through our nation (what Edmund Burke called “the unbought grace of life”), with the kind of ugly nationalism that has led to world wars and much human sorrow.

Loss of a proper patriotism, I believe, is part of a broader, more worrisome shift. When things are relatively normal, people’s loyalties center on family, country, church. We are not anything like normal, in several Western countries. Instead, “race, class, and gender” have emerged among our Western elites as the most important constituents of identity and – bizarrely – as things to champion.

Yet for all that – and the many further troubles likely to be visited upon us quite soon – this day is one to celebrate. You don’t have to be a naive booster of America to realize what blessings, for all its imperfections, the United States has brought to its citizens, and often enough to the world. Or to think that we need to find a way to confirm those blessings while confronting unpleasant truths about what we’ve become.

The sharpest observer of the early United States, Alexis de Tocqueville, wrote near the beginning of his great book Democracy in America:

It is not necessary that God himself should speak in order to disclose to us the unquestionable signs of His will; we can discern them in the habitual course of nature, and in the invariable tendency of events: I know, without a special revelation, that the planets move in the orbits traced by the Creator’s finger. If the men of our time were led by attentive observation and by sincere reflection to acknowledge that the gradual and progressive development of social equality is at once the past and future of their history, this solitary truth would confer the sacred character of a Divine decree upon the change. To attempt to check democracy would be in that case to resist the will of God; and the nations would then be constrained to make the best of the social lot awarded to them by Providence.

“Democracy” has been degraded by countless bad examples since Tocqueville. But what he intuited – a system of a lawful liberty, wherein the freedom and intelligence of persons, given them by the Creator, find space to do, not whatever we want, but what we ought – was something truly monumental.

Statue of Liberty Enlightening the World (The Unveiling of the Statue of Liberty) by Edward Moran, 1886 [Museum of the City of New York]

A free society cannot long last where people have lost the understanding of true freedom. The Founders worried about liberty turning into license, which is why all of them, in differing ways and degrees, pointed out that popular morality and religious principle (George Washington) are the foundations of republican government. As John Adams put it, “Our Constitution was made only for a moral and religious people. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other.”

But there’s more. Whenever the Fourth returns, I re-read Robert Frost’s poem, “The Gift Outright.” For over a decade, I’ve done so, as I will again this morning, with students in the Slovak Republic, at our Summer Seminar on the Free Society, founded by the recently deceased Michael Novak almost twenty years ago.

The poem has an interesting history. When John F. Kennedy was elected (our only Catholic president), he asked Frost to write a poem for the inauguration. Frost did; it’s called “Dedication.” But the sun was so bright that morning, the octogenarian couldn’t read the text. So instead he recited, from memory, a briefer poem about the need to give ourselves to something, even before we’re sure of what it can be:

The land was ours before we were the land’s.
She was our land more than a hundred years
Before we were her people. She was ours
In Massachusetts, in Virginia,
But we were England’s, still colonials,
Possessing what we still were unpossessed by,
Possessed by what we now no more possessed.
Something we were withholding made us weak
Until we found out that it was ourselves
We were withholding from our land of living,
And forthwith found salvation in surrender.
Such as we were we gave ourselves outright
(The deed of gift was many deeds of war)
To the land vaguely realizing westward,
But still unstoried, artless, unenhanced,
Such as she was, such as she would become.

In bad times, the temptation is great to withdraw, to think that giving ourselves to something that’s uncertain and looks to become more so, be it the Church or the nation, is a fool’s errand. To give yourself so that something will live and flourish can involve serious unpleasantries. (“The deed of gift was many deeds of war.”) So it’s natural to be hesitant.

And nations are mortal things; like each of us they will someday perish and must therefore draw such meaning as they have from higher, permanent things.

But it’s only right to feel gratitude for a decent country, as we do towards family and friends, imperfect people, who have been our benefactors. It’s nothing to be ashamed of, whatever our woes. Rather, today’s a day for committing ourselves to making the nation, battered and bruised though she now be, still worthier of celebration.

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.