In my post last week, I focused on how Antonio Spadaro, S.J., and Marcelo Figueroa, in their much discussed essay “Evangelical Fundamentalism and Catholic Integralism,” misread and even misrepresent the matter of religious liberty in the United States. Here I want to focus on another misreading, this one set forth in their exordium:
In God We Trust. This phrase is printed on the banknotes of the United States of America and is the current national motto. It appeared for the first time on a coin in 1864 but did not become official until Congress passed a motion in 1956. A motto is important for a nation whose foundation was rooted in religious motivations. For many it is a simple declaration of faith. For others, it is the synthesis of a problematic fusion between religion and state, faith and politics, religious values and economy.
Stylistically, the rehearsal of this this hodge-podge of facts reads like the incipit of a middle schooler’s social studies essay, but no matter.
That phrase, In God We Trust, is indeed printed (or stamped) on all US coinage, and has been, since 1956. The founding of the United States is indeed rooted in religious motivations, and the motto of any nation, but especially one so conceived and so dedicated as the United States, will be telling.
While it is true that the motto will convey different ideas to different people, or excite different sentiments in different citizens, the inclusion of the expression on US currency has a definite scope and purpose, to which a young Congressman from Florida, Charles Edward Bennett (D-3) gave the expression preserved in the legislative history of the Act that ordered the words to appear:
In these days when imperialistic and materialistic communism seeks to attack and destroy freedom, we should continuously look for ways to strengthen the foundations of our freedom. At the base of our freedom is our faith in God and the desire of Americans to live by His will and His guidance. As long as this country trusts in God, it will prevail. To serve as a constant reminder of this truth, it is highly desirable that our currency and coins should bear these inspiring words “In God We Trust.”
There is a powerful strain of thought, sometimes amounting to what the French call a fil rouge, running through the history of America’s self-understanding, which does view America as the New Jerusalem. Exploration of how that strain is currently at work in the soul of the nation is a question worth exploring, and La Civiltà Cattolica is one of the venues eminently well placed to participate in such an exploration. This last consideration only adds to the bitterness of their failure to do so.
Whatever else one might say about the motto, Spadaro and Figueroa’s decision to use it as a foil for the exploration of a dichotomy of the type that begins with the construction, “For some…for others,” betrays not only the authors’ insufficient knowledge of their subject, but also, sadly, their lack of interest in really coming to understand it. Spadaro and Figueroa’s failure is not simply literary and journalistic.
It is genuinely a failure in the mission of La Civiltà Cattolica, which is in essence to help men and women in the world of intellect and culture to understand and to think with the mind of the Church. One further consideration will help bring this sad fact further and more clearly into view.
While it is doubtless true that the verb, “to prevail” is subject to equivocation, and could ring quite differently in different citizens’ ears, depending on how thoroughly the strain of thought that sees America as essentially an eschatological society has infected and progressed in the soul of a given citizen, the general sentiment Bennett expressed resonates deeply with the words Benedict XVI used to describe his understanding of and admiration for the American experiment in ordered liberty, when he visited the United States in 2008:
From the dawn of the Republic, America’s quest for freedom has been guided by the conviction that the principles governing political and social life are intimately linked to a moral order based on the dominion of God the Creator. The framers of this nation’s founding documents drew upon this conviction when they proclaimed the “self-evident truth” that all men are created equal and endowed with inalienable rights grounded in the laws of nature and of nature’s God. The course of American history demonstrates the difficulties, the struggles, and the great intellectual and moral resolve which were demanded to shape a society which faithfully embodied these noble principles. In that process, which forged the soul of the nation, religious beliefs were a constant inspiration and driving force, as for example in the struggle against slavery and in the civil rights movement. In our time too, particularly in moments of crisis, Americans continue to find their strength in a commitment to this patrimony of shared ideals and aspirations. (Address of His Holiness, Benedict XVI, South Lawn of the White House, Washington, D.C. Wednesday, 16 April 2008)
In other words, even if one rejects the second half of Spadaro and Figueroa’s dichotomy, which posits – not exactly wrongly, but with insufficient depth and precision – a group of people for whom the motto is an expression of “a problematic fusion between religion and state, faith and politics, religious values and economy,” the alternative is not that the motto should be read as, “a simple declaration of faith,” but that America – i.e. the conceptual space that informs and animates the national life of the American people – is a complicated experiment in free social order, which seeks to manage the tensions inherent in any society that recognizes the constitutive presence of spiritual and temporal spheres that are distinct, but not separate.
If Spadaro and Figueroa were serious and in earnest, then they predicated their entire analysis on a dichotomy that is not only inaccurate in the formulation of its parts, but false in its organic complex – and this fact so colors their subsequent analysis, as to render it useless for the purpose of critical discourse.
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