The Fourth Commandment: “Honor your father and your mother, that your days may be long in the land which the Lord your God gives you.”
That’s not just a call to filial piety; it’s a call to patriotism as well.
One might argue that the regulation of our lives begins in God’s love for each of us, except there is nothing in the Ten Commandments about honor due to oneself. God knows most of us need no instruction in that, which is why the Commandments direct us out of ourselves: to family and the “land,” the ground we stand upon but also the people standing with us in neighborhoods, towns, cities, states, nations, and the world.
This comes across clearly in Luke 10:25-37. A lawyer has asked Jesus how he might inherit eternal life. Knowing this fellow’s profession, the Lord answers with His own questions: “What is written in the law? What do you read there?”
How elated the lawyer must have been! The Galilean preacher has fallen into my trap! The lawyer slyly quotes Christ’s own answer (see Mark 12:28-34), which he may well have heard Jesus say at another time in another place or heard it reported by someone else. The shyster recites the Shema Yisrael (Deuteronomy 6:4-5), the Commandment to love God totally, adding, as Jesus earlier had, the phrase from Leviticus (19:18) about loving one’s neighbor.
Jesus praises him. But then the lawyer – “to justify himself,” Luke says – asks (half grinning, perhaps):
“And who is my neighbor?”
Comes then the Parable of the Good Samaritan. We could use that Samaritan’s loving-kindness these days, as anybody on social media realizes.
The importance of civility can certainly be deduced from the Fourth Commandment, but I think patriotism and civic-mindedness are there too. Consider what St. Thomas Aquinas says:
[M]an is debtor chiefly to his parents and his country, after God. Wherefore just as it belongs to religion to give worship to God, so does it belong to piety, in the second place, to give worship to one’s parents and one’s country. (ST IIa IIae, Q, 101, a.1)
We also have the instruction of the Catechism:
2199 The fourth commandment is addressed expressly to children in their relationship to their father and mother, because this relationship is the most universal. It likewise concerns the ties of kinship between members of the extended family. It requires honor, affection, and gratitude toward elders and ancestors. Finally, it extends to the duties of pupils to teachers, employees to employers, subordinates to leaders, citizens to their country, and to those who administer or govern it.
Civility, civilization, civic, civil: each word has its root in the Latin civis, “citizen.” The grandest of these, civilization – which stands for the collective and binding refinements of a society – means, in essence, life in the “city,” the assumption from ancient times being that it was in the city that one found the best and most developed ideas, institutions, and individuals.
This derives from a time before “nation” meant much more than “a people,” as in the nation of Israel, an ethno-religious unity. It was to one’s people that one owed allegiance, and “a people” (especially a “chosen people”) was an extension of family relations, with all its intricacies of blood and intimacy. With time, a unified nation such as the United States can be a “city upon a hill,” that is, civilization is no longer just experienced in great metropolitan places.
Athens and Rome helped transform “people” into “nation,” and gave the West its Greco-Roman view of identity that was later wedded with Jerusalem in the Judeo-Christian tradition. It’s one worth venerating, even loving.
But to love anything, you have to know it. To love America, we have to know America.
All this is by way of lamenting the lack of love being shown to the glorious and extraordinary history of our nation and the world. To the extent that history is even taught, it’s often as a litany of grievances against those allegedly benighted ancestors who had the impudence not to have been as virtuous and enlightened as we. Education in history today is often splintered into the sort of factionalism that worried Alexander Hamilton and James Madison, and is articulated by them in Federalist Nos. 9 and 10.
Hamilton (most know of him today thanks only to the $10 bill or Lin-Manuel Miranda’s musical) expressed concern that “an infinity of little, jealous, clashing tumultuous commonwealths” would emerge unless we embraced (as Gouverneur Morris would write in the Constitution’s Preamble) “a more perfect Union.” And Madison warned of “a number of citizens. . .united and actuated by some common impulse of passion, or of interest, adverse to the rights of other citizens, or to the permanent and aggregate interests of the community.”
Madison and Hamilton were steeped not only in the history of their young nation and of Great Britain, but also of the larger European experience and the literary history of Greco-Roman civilizations from which many of their best ideas sprung. All of it was suffused with a Judeo-Christian soul.
Not to know this – to be ignorant of our history – makes it impossible to love America.
To be sure, to know history is to be repelled by some of it: war, slavery, racism, anti-Semitism. God knows, it’s all there. But it helps not at all to ignore history; in fact, that’s the worst response. And it is the response. According to the American Council of Trustees and Alumni (ACTA), of 1,132 colleges surveyed, only 205 have American history requirements. That’s 18 percent.
And it’s no surprise that so many young people are enamored with socialism, given that only 3 percent of colleges require even a single course in economics.
ACTA recently sponsored a fine essay about historical knowledge by Allen Guelzo of Princeton University. It’s worth reading and passing on to those who need it, which is apparently most people under 30.
*Image: Rainy Day, Fifth Avenue by Childe Hassam, 1916 [Princeton University Art Museum, Princeton, NJ]