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“America First”?

Besides calling for patriotism, Vatican II prayed that leaders of nations would “enlarge their thoughts and their spirit beyond the confines of their own countries” and, putting aside “nationalistic selfishness and ambition…cultivate deep reverence for the whole of mankind” (Gaudium et Spes, 82).


Along with the customary cluster of cookouts, parades, and fireworks, the 4th of July this year brings something different to the observance of our great national festival. “America First” is President Trump’s not-so-new rhetorical contribution to Independence Day 2017.

Opinion is divided on whether that’s good or bad. On this, a distinction may help.

Taken simply as an ingenuous expression of patriotism, there’s no real objection to America First. Charity at the global level truly must begin at home, for unless it starts there—in love of one’s own country, that is—charity isn’t likely to thrive anywhere else.

The Second Vatican Council says as much. “Citizens should cultivate a generous and loyal spirit of patriotism,” Vatican II teaches in its Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World. But then it makes a second, inseparable point. Citizens should practice patriotism, it says, “without narrow-mindedness,” keeping in mind “the welfare of the whole human family which is formed into one by various kinds of links between races, peoples, and nations” (Gaudium et Spes, 75).

By that standard, how does Trump’s iteration of America First measure up? That question must be weighed in light of his withdrawal from the Paris climate accord, his problematic views on NATO, immigration and free trade, and much else. These plainly are complex issues about which reasoned disagreement is possible; but the president’s words and deeds, taken together, at least provide matter for concern when gauged by Vatican II.

That said, moreover, there is no ignoring the historical baggage that the slogan “America First” inescapably carries with it.

The story goes back to 1940 when Yale law students who included future president Gerald Ford, future Peace Corps director Sargent Shriver, and future Supreme Court justice Potter Stewart joined in establishing a group called the America First Committee. Its stated purpose was to oppose United States’ entry into the war then raging in Europe.

By that time the world had witnessed the Hitler-Stalin nonaggression pact, the invasion and dismemberment of Poland, and the fall of France. The Luftwaffe’s air war against London and other British cities was underway, and a German invasion of Britain was thought to be imminent.

By no means, however, was the America First Committee a mere creature of head-in-the-sand isolationism. Isolationism certainly was part of it, but the group also drew support from respectable sources, including a number of big businessmen. Its chief spokesman was the celebrated aviator Charles Lindbergh, who, besides wanting America to stay out of the war, also advocated an American military buildup in anticipation of the day when the country might have to fight. Future president John F. Kennedy sent a check for $100 together with a note calling America First’s efforts “vital.” At its peak, the group claimed 800,000 members in 450 chapters, most of them in the Midwest.

Then came December 7, 1941—Pearl Harbor. Four days after the attack on America’s Pacific fleet, the America First Committee closed down for good.

Historical parallels are never exact, and this one surely isn’t. Still, there may be a lesson here, one reinforced by Vatican Council II. Besides calling for patriotism, the council prayed that leaders of nations would “enlarge their thoughts and their spirit beyond the confines of their own countries” and, putting aside “nationalistic selfishness and ambition…cultivate deep reverence for the whole of mankind” (Gaudium et Spes, 82).

That is still a good prayer. Yes, certainly, America First. But a very close second, the rest of the world.

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About Russell Shaw 288 Articles
Russell Shaw was secretary for public affairs of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops/United States Catholic Conference from 1969 to 1987. He is the author of 20 books, including Nothing to Hide, American Church: The Remarkable Rise, Meteoric Fall, and Uncertain Future of Catholicism in America, Eight Popes and the Crisis of Modernity, and, most recently, The Life of Jesus Christ (Our Sunday Visitor, 2021).


  1. “… the president’s words and deeds, taken together, at least provide matter for concern when gauged by Vatican II.” Thus, as a Catholic, I am completely unconcerned. This article is exactly what one would expect from a former insider at the USCCB – inaccurate, irrelevant, and ideological.

  2. Making an appeal to Vatican II is never a good way win an argument. But, there is a world of difference between “America first” of Trump 2017 and “nationalistic selfishness” of G & S.

    The thought that the president of the United States putting the needs and interests of his own country first might be controversial show just how messed up the intellectual class (both in and out of the church) is today. In 2017 “America First” means the one world socialist government project is on hold for now, and that’s what really irks people.

  3. For me to be a Patriot means to be with the Fathers (or founders) of our Country. To stand with them. The word “patriot” itself suggests this. Patriot comes from the Latin patria, which means father. So I stand with the ideals, principles and values of the founders of this country, my country. My love for country is really a love for the ideals, principles and values that the nation was founded on. As Catholics we are most fortunate because there is no necessary contradiction between the formal philosophical content of America’s founding and our faith.

    To me “America First” means that we must preserve this legacy. This means that we must protect at home the conditions necessary to insure that this legacy of Liberty endures.

  4. “…“without narrow-mindedness,” said the Fathers at Vatican II.

    How narrow-minded was Bishop Joseph Hurley, who advocated US entry into WW II five months before Pearl Harbor, when a majority of Catholic wanted to stay out of it?

    “As for the people,” Hurley said in a national radio broadcast,” they have neither the experience nor access to the facts to decide whether we go to war.”

    Like many of today’s bishops, Bp. Hurley didn’t have much respect the people, or for Congress, either. He opposed the Constitution’s requirement that Congress declare war, insisting that “Roosevelt, as Commander in Chief, rather than Congress, should decide whether and when the USA should enter the war.” [Melbourne Argus, July 8, 1941, page one]

    Mr. Shaw’s fine portrait of Cardinal Gibbons calls him the “Prince of Democracy.” But like Bp. Hurley, Cdl. Gibbons strongly supported US entry into World War I when a majority of American Catholics opposed it. Cdl. Gibbons even ignored the plea of Pope Benedict XV, who urged him to keep the U.S. out of the war while the pope sought an early peace before the war became the “Great War.” (For different approaches, see Shaw’s American Church [Ignatius] and Pope Leo XIII on the Americanist heresy (Testem Benevolentiae, 1899), as pertinent today as it was then).

    I wish Mr. Shaw had consulted the account of Clarence Manion, Dean of Notre Dame’s Law School and the lawyer for America First, or the autobiography of Robert Stuart, the founder (and Yale undergrad!), so he could better have limned the origins and purposes of the America First Committee with his usual grace and insight.

    The same observation can be applied to his all too brief and tendentious remarks concerning selected particulars of President Trump’s foreign policy. Where is the mention of his severing billions of US funding for abortions, going even further than President Reagan and both Bushes? And Paris? Where is his concern for the poor whose living costs would skyrocket under the agreement – as well as the accord’s pursuit of population control? And on immigration, where is his consideration of the second paragraph of par. 2243 of the Catechism? Why is following that clear statement “problematic”?

    In 1954, the Knights of Columbus successfully lobbied to insert the phrase “under God” in the Pledge of allegiance. But that pledge commits us to “the Republic for which [our flag] stands” – not the world, not the UN, not International Planned Parenthood.

    Does Mr. Shaw advocate getting rid of that document’s “historical baggage” as well?

  5. Vatican II, well, it also said Latin needs to retain pride of place in the liturgy. People who push that point now are dismissed as Trads! As for the America First Committee, it’s isolationism prior to Pearl Harbor arguably made sense, as could its change of stance. More and more the Catholic Church seems to push globalism. Just because something sounds nice does not mean it is good strategy. I do not think Trump’s words merit concern. We need to reduce immigration, and reduce spending. These are political concerns motivated by common sense.

  6. One exorcist said a long time ago, “There are three things the devil hates:”
    -the love between husband and wife
    -the family unit
    -love of country

    Marital love, the family unit and love of country nurtured under God sounds like some pretty good leaven to “proclaiming the gospel to the ends of the earth,” Yes? If these elements are not strong in the basic unit of society, it’s hard to imaging how there can be authentic influence upon the general population, for one cannot preach that which does not practice and be effective. Actions do speak.

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