I don’t know if America is “the greatest nation in human history.” By many measures – military power, global cultural influence, GNP, a large middle class, extensive governmental provisions for the poor, personal liberties, basic equality before the law, religious and ethnic tolerance (at least until recently), a welcoming of immigrants (around 1 million legal immigrants yearly), the orderly transfer of power over centuries (America remains the oldest continuous modern democracy), and the ability to correct itself, even go to war, over large evils like racism and slavery – the evidence certainly points that way. And it’s something to be deeply grateful for, especially given the “butcher’s block” of history. How this counts as greatness, however, depends on what you think greatness means. Of which more below.
But I also don’t know that “America is in obvious decline.” You hear this often these days – particularly since the Afghanistan fiasco, which revealed shocking incompetence and nincompoopery in our politics and the military, with the media a close third. I hear veterans wonder whether it’s worth sacrificing for a country hell-bent on transgender totalitarianism, “defunding the police,” anti-racist racism, woke cancellations.
And I hear Catholic Americans similarly dismayed about the Church, and wondering if it’s worth defending her given the sex abuse, financial corruption, and the weakness of our bishops on many matters, particularly scandalous public figures like a “Catholic” president who is “personally opposed,” but in the wake of Texas’ strict abortion laws has called for “whole of government” defense of abortion.
Our best religious and civic traditions say nothing is inevitable, given human freedom to choose different futures. Witness the exchange in Lawrence of Arabia (screenplay by Robert Bolt, author of A Man for All Seasons):
Arabs (counseling giving up) – “It is written.”
El Orentz (Lawrence) – “Truly, for some men nothing is written unless they write it.”
On this Labor Day, somber in so many ways at home and abroad, it’s worth remembering that what has made America great is precisely the belief that we are free – within God-given limits and grace. That we can always work towards a “more perfect union,” do the right thing, fail and begin again, and in the deepest sense, defy “fate.”
So, while the Afghanistan fiasco has forced us to confront, yet again, who we are and why we seem incapable of doing many things well at the moment, you can approach this situation from two directions. A nation is not a church: It’s only right, to a certain extent, to weigh the evidence for its standing in purely secular terms. A nation, any nation, will at some point pass into history. That’s the “fate” of everything in our transient world. How and when that will happen, however, depends on many things, especially who we decide to be right now and going forward.
But for a Christian, that’s only part of the story. It’s good to note that, prior to the pandemic, more Americans, of all races and backgrounds, were participating in what St. John Paul II called the “universal workbench.” (Laborem exercens14) A lot of what redeems our lives from futility and meaninglessness involves the contributions we make as we earn our daily bread. Everyone, in whatever profession – construction workers, computer designers, medical personnel, teachers, law enforcement and the military, restaurant workers, delivery people, even our political leaders – may make honorable contributions to our society and the world.
At the same time, however, none of our practical activities, however much they contribute to prosperity and well-being, is sufficient to the full human task. Even the ancient pagans knew it takes more. As Plato put it:
Socrates: “the life according to knowledge is not that which makes men act rightly and be happy, not even if knowledge include all the sciences, but one science only, the science of good and evil. For, let me ask you, Critias, whether, if you take that away, medicine will not equally give health, and shoemaking equally produce shoes, and the art of the weaver clothes? – whether the art of the pilot will not equally save our lives at sea, and the art of the general in war?”
Critias: “Quite so.”
Socrates: “And yet, my dear Critias, none of these things will be well or beneficially done, if the science of the good be wanting.”
(Charmides 174 C-D, emphases added)
Christianity added that we will be judged not only on our understanding of good and evil, but particularly on how we treated the poor, vulnerable, elderly, and marginalized. The American government has stepped into this area with all sorts of “programs” – more than anyone could even list. (And if things go as they’re trending in Congress, we’re about to see an even more massive expansion of government into civil society.) But with mixed results – and for good reason.
Pope Francis has often said it’s not enough to “write a check” to help others. He’s obviously right. We’ve poured billions into relief efforts – to mention only one problem – but still have allowed hordes of people sleeping in homeless encampments and disrupting urban spaces. The resources exist: The will to help people in a more fully human manner less so.
On that front, as on so many others these days – sex, family, race, identity – we need to rethink nationally what is good and bad, the science of the good if you will, in both temporal and eternal perspectives.
Despite appearances of decline, it’s worth the sacrifice – for both the nation and the Church – if we make that sacrifice worthy of everything we are and can be. In City of God, St. Augustine argues there are two cities: the City of Man, centered on human desires, even when they are collective – false “national greatness” as in ancient Rome; and the City of God, centered on Him and our neighbor, true greatness in mercy, love, and truth – things in all times and places worthy of our utmost labor and sacrifice.
The choice is still, always, ours. “Truly, for some men nothing is written unless they write it.”
*Image: An early flag of the United States of America by an unknown artist/sewer, 18th century [Chicago History Museum]. The flag is representative of the type Betsy Ross made.
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