Testem Benevolentiae

Foreigners, like me, have a hard time understanding what I call the “Natted States” sometimes. I am Canadian, for better or worse, but let me speak for seven billion others whose Green Cards have not yet been obtained. (Seldom can I speak for such a large crowd.) There are people who haven’t even applied for one yet.

We’re not necessarily anti-American. I should think that for the overwhelming majority, this isn’t an issue. America is just another place. The freedom, not only to have an opinion, but to not have an opinion, or have a messy one, is something we prize. (Unconsciously.)

Some have views that are illogical, or inconsistent. The wise may judge the man he must deal with by his actions, more than by his words. I myself think that a man whose mouth is anti-American, but whose body wants a Green Card, has perhaps not thought his position through.

The great majority doesn’t have to think anything through, however. Non-refugees mostly stay where they were born, or nearby. Given conditions in the modern world, one might say that America is coming to them, more than vice versa. They’d actually need consistent thoughts to resist the breakdown of any traditional culture.

China makes a good clinching example. While the mainland is a communist totalitarian dystopia, its people have been regimented to pursue something like the “American Dream” – if that can be reduced to “get a job, get rich, live expansively.” They’ve been told, sometimes plausibly, that America is undisciplined and crazy. They neither agree nor disagree. Only when given a chance to break for it, might we learn their real opinions.

But again: most, instinctively, stay where they are. Much deeper impulses might determine their religious and philosophical views, if they have any depth. But most, not only in China, suspect that depth would lead to inconvenience at least, and possibly, to political trouble.

Ten, or fifty, or a hundred times as many have embraced Christianity, as have fled to Natted States, from that and similar countries. I pull such numbers out of hats; there can be no reliable statistics. But I attempt the point to clarify how little politics figure in the minds of most men. A patented American idea, such as “live free or die,” probably doesn’t move that many Americans.

Habit, and the need to survive or even flourish, counts for much more. When thought goes beyond this, it rises to unworldly places. The average immigrant was only looking for an easier life. His decision was essentially mundane. He dresses it up to please his new neighbors. What he really thinks is known only to God.

I think of a young Pakistani gentleman, once met on a train. He complimented my own country. “Canada!” he declared. “It is a country with excellent facilities.” He said that might be a reason to move. But that he would cease to be Pakistani was, for him, an inconceivable proposition. Were he a nomad, he’d simply be moving his tent, closer to a source of water.

Whereas, a change of religion would change the whole man. It would be far more difficult than getting on an airplane, for a place he’d never been to. He’d have to have a much clearer idea where he was going.

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The American idea – that America was founded on an idea, unlike other countries – does not mean much, outside America. The idea itself may make the country different, but only to itself. By comparison, the idea that it was a Christian country, in common with many others in the West, paradoxically made it “exceptional.” It was a true source of cultural identity.

I was thinking this while catching the news of a vice-presidential nomination this week. Kamala Harris is the daughter of a Jamaican father and a Tamil Indian mother. Apparently, this makes her an “African American.” Think this through for a moment. Is there anything that makes her American? Besides having been born in California?

She calls herself an exponent of “American values.” What are those? They hardly coincide with what most people from western New York to eastern California would recognize as germane. Her childhood religion – an overlay of Black Baptist, with Hindu temple worship – does not strike me as decisively American. Yet she’d be the first to call my remark “un-American.”

Well, being actually “un-American,” I’ll leave her to your voters down there. My own views, as a foreigner, are irrelevant. Good luck, all of you.

In his apostolic letter, Testem Benevolentiae Nostrae, published on the eve of the 20th century, Pope Leo XIII touched on some of these matters. While he was famously contending with a heresy called “Americanism,” he was actually responding to a controversy in France.

The idea that Catholic doctrines should be watered down, because they present an obstacle to conversion, was an issue at that time. Even then, the pope’s resistance was sneered at; now, it is hardly remembered – just as Pope Paul’s Humanae Vitae was sneered at, and now is fading from our public memory.

For while Catholicism had been with us for a long time, non-Catholicism has been around for longer. The former wasn’t founded on an idea but a fact: That Christ Is, as opposed to isn’t. Only post-Catholicism is founded on ideas.

The American ideas, which like the Protestant ideas and countless others (they change over time), are curiously anti-intellectual. They involve discarding beliefs founded upon a fact, while trying to hold on to SOMETHING perpetual. Each will disintegrate when put to the test, but until they are visibly disintegrating, an obvious notion stays to the fore.

It is: take away obstacles, and everything will be smoother. Let nothing stand in the way of our “excellent facilities.’ Let us make our own identities, as we go along – race, gender, citizenship, whatever. You’re all just American, you might argue; until that succumbs to the next idea.

 

*Image: Trade cards from the “Rulers, Flags, and Coats of Arms” series (N126-1), 1888 [The MET, New York]. The cards were issued by W. Duke, Sons & Co. This variation promotes Honest Long Cut tobacco.

David Warren

David Warren is a former editor of the Idler magazine and columnist in Canadian newspapers. He has extensive experience in the Near and Far East. His blog, Essays in Idleness, is now to be found at: davidwarrenonline.com.