You’ve probably heard it too: “This country is not worth fighting for – let alone dying for – anymore. It’s too corrupt and broken. It’s finished.” You even hear it from disheartened people who served in the armed forces or lost loved ones in war. On this Memorial Day, as we honor those who made the ultimate sacrifice for us, we need to sort out what’s true about that feeling – the part that makes it partly true – from what’s false – the temptation to surrender to things we should never surrender to.
Let’s approach this subject as Catholics, in the steadying light of the Church’s long experience, not in the ways that the hysterics in the media and our public life use these days to exploit us. There may always come a day when a beloved nation is no longer worth defending. It can cross a line from troubled legitimacy (which is what all governments always are) into outright illegitimacy.
But today is not that day.
Some thought America crossed that line in 1973 with Roe v. Wade. How can a government that legally permits the killing of innocents remain legitimate?
And it didn’t stop there.
A famous symposium in First Things in 1996, asked whether we were seeing “The End of Democracy?” Several writers, who were and are friends to many of us at TCT, lamented “the judicial usurpation of politics” in further court decisions (which have since multiplied). They questioned whether our system could be justified – or fixed – any longer. It was a powerful, if controversial, argument at the time. And it hasn’t gone away.
Yet here we are, over a quarter-century later, likely to see in just a few weeks the reversal of Roe.
Many battles were fought to bring us to this point. Even so, the battle over abortion and many other evils is not finished, and never will be, because evil and error regrow, like poisonous weeds, on any ground that we leave untreated.
No Christian should be surprised at this. We live in a fallen world. The effects of Original Sin continue to unspool everywhere. And it’s a utopian fantasy to think that it’s abnormal when evils threaten us on every side. If you need Biblical warrant, here’s St. Peter, “Beloved, do not be surprised that a trial by fire is occurring among you, as if something strange were happening to you.” (1Peter, 4:12)
Pursuing good and repelling evil are the warp and woof of human life.
Lately, we’ve been dealing with another fantasy: the un-Christian and adolescent notion that real or alleged flaws in our American past, and in our whole Western civilization – slavery, racism, inequality, “homophobia,” etc. – are unique to just one part of the human race – whites, men, colonizers, and (yes) Christians. And delegitimize the country.
The slightest knowledge of American and human history – and even a glance around the world today would show – that simply isn’t true. But it’s one measure of how blind the radical critics have become that they don’t appreciate the many other things (Christianity among them) that have made our history, for all its flaws, different. And better.
Even worse, the newly “woke” believe they themselves are free from sin and able to take us to a better place.
This is something new. And it stems directly from the rejection of Christianity and, therefore, a failure to see what’s real. All of us have done things we shouldn’t have. And, if we’re decent people, regret it. Becoming an adult means acknowledging those failures – and their continuing effects in our lives – and learning to work on our own imperfections. And to forgive others trying to work through theirs.
Multiply our individual lives times the billions of people on earth – not all sincerely trying to do better – and it’s no wonder that human history presents such a melancholy spectacle.
There are times when the faults come bubbling more obviously to the surface, sometimes many at once. We’re at such a moment now. But only the very young, whatever their chronological age, are under the illusion that some society exists somewhere without our shortcomings. Or that now “woke” themselves, they can bring one about soon.
Take our most neuralgic issue just now: racism. By any objective measures, America is one of the least racist nations on earth. And outside the media bubble, the races accept each other more than ever. Which is one of the reasons why our Southern border is jammed with people of all races trying to get in.
At least 360,000 Northerners died in the Civil War to bring an end to slavery and preserve our Union (200,000 Catholics fought in that war). And from that bloody struggle, we have moved towards greater equality among all races. The fact that such a struggle continues is not a sign that we’ve failed, but that we’re still striving to do even better.
We’re also struggling on many other painful fronts, of course. Some Christians these days even talk idly about civil war and secession, given our moral problems and social divisions. But this is a false solution. Our great dead – in the Revolution, the Civil War, and more recent conflicts – remind us of what it has cost just to maintain union and a tolerable level of human decency.
We know more than ever on this Memorial Day how the gifts of freedom may be taken for granted, distorted, mocked, and misused to justify vice and decadence. The day may come when those evils become too great to bear. But today is not that day.
We cannot surrender to despair. There’s still too much good in our people and institutions to let them go without a fight. We’re not naïve. We’ve always known we’re less than perfect. And that at some point, as Ben Franklin warned right after the ratification of the Constitution, we can lose it all. But today is not that day.
Indeed, a time may come when it’s no longer worth sacrificing for America. Pray it will never come. But today is not that day.
You may also enjoy:
David Warren’s The Most Essential Service
Brad Miner’s This Day