Something about the country makes people ask the question.
People who love our country say it is exceptional. Those who don’t might prefer other words. For better or worse, it does seem different in some way. G. K. Chesterton explained the matter best: America, he said, is “the only nation in the world founded on a creed,” and so is “a nation with the soul of a church.”
But what could that mean?
The clearest answer is provided by Abraham Lincoln as interpreted by the neoconservatives, a group that tried to combine liberalism with American tradition and thereby put their finger on something basic in our national life. Lincoln said America was “conceived in liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.” The neoconservatives said that makes it a nation defined not by blood, soil, or particular culture, but by the cause of freedom and equality.
They viewed that cause as religious in character, and extensible to the whole world. After all, if human dignity means freedom and equality, and America is defined by those qualities, shouldn’t America be for everybody? So they favored mass immigration, civic education in “American values,” and an interventionist foreign policy.
Not everyone agreed with their view. More traditional conservatives agreed that America is attached to freedom and equality. But they usually believed in something like the God of the Bible. That meant that their understanding of freedom and equality was moderated by an attachment to traditional Christian morality. It was also moderated by a certain residual particularism: an understanding of America as an originally European and indeed British and Protestant society that carries forward traditions springing from that background, such as individualism, political freedom, limited government, the common law, and a basically commercial orientation.
That view had deep roots in America, but it has found it difficult to survive historical shocks and changes. People care about tradition less than they once did, and immigration has made America far less British, Protestant, and European. Nor do people believe in the God of the Bible as much now, and many of those who say they do in effect identify Christian morality with a secular progressivism that understands freedom and equality as absolute self-defining autonomy—in the words of the Supreme Court, “the right to define one’s own concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe, and of the mystery of human life.”
With nothing to limit them such abstractions eventually get pushed to extremes. The religion that defines the American cause has thus become more and more explicitly the religion of man: each of us is a divinity who creates his world in the image of his own desires and purposes, and the point of politics, morality, and social order is to help each do that equally.
Further, the view that man is divine has turned ever more Americans into secular progressives who see no point bothering with the God of the Bible. And their views have continued to evolve. Today they have become “woke,” and the Great Awokening has become the most dynamic, disruptive, and aggressively intolerant religious movement in American history.
Hence the bitter disputes over whether America is good or evil.
The neoconservatives no longer matter much regarding such issues. They retain some presence as apparatchiks and talking heads, but foreign wars and Trumpism have greatly reduced their influence.
Traditional conservatives, who accept freedom and equality as goals but mitigate them through attachment to traditional religious and moral judgments and to Anglo-American political arrangements, continue to believe that America has always been a force for good. So they consider themselves the true adherents of the American religion.
But fewer and fewer Americans see things their way, and the specific content of their religion is perpetually sliding toward the progressive view. Also, it is becoming harder for them to say with conviction that America is essentially good. How can they, when those expected to speak for America—political leaders, mainstream religious figures, commentators, scholars, educators—more and more say the contrary? If America today is at odds with America yesterday, how can America’s essence be good?
That leaves woke progressives, who approve wholeheartedly of the direction of events. For them, America as it has actually been is the Great Satan. It has never been consistently free and equal, and they consider any violation of those evolving principles monstrous. Also, reforming America would mean abolishing it, since “freedom and equality” have come to require abolition of national distinctions and borders. So why say anything good about the country, except that its claim to stand for freedom and equality, however hypocritical, supports progressivism?
None of this makes much sense, because it is nonsensical to turn one’s country into a religion. But what should sensible citizens, including thoughtful Catholics, say about this country?
The views of the progressives are unrealistic to the point of inhumanity and delusion. When taken seriously, such views lead to tyranny, anarchy, and madness, focused and stabilized by hatred and the pervasive lying required to give them plausibility. That happened in the French and communist revolutions, and we now see it happening in America.
Nor can conservatism help us. It has no principles that are firm and concrete enough to let its adherents do more than mumble complaints and drag their feet. Even that is enough to make respectable people view them with contempt, and they have no stomach for the opprobrium of their social betters.
With that in mind, we must start again with basics. There’s only one true Church, which is neither the Church of America nor the Church of Wokeness. That means that America is neither a vehicle of divine revelation nor the Great Satan. Nor are its exceptional features so very important. It is a society like other societies, mostly good but affected by evil, and joined together through common histories and understandings as well as the brute need for those living together in a common space to find a peaceful and productive way of doing so.
What joins it together is evidently disintegrating, for reasons that include globalism, mass immigration, radicalization of its guiding principles, destruction of traditional connections for the sake of profit and social reconstruction, and technological changes, such as mobility and the growth of the Internet, that disrupt settled human relationships and ways of life.
The purpose of political authority is care of the community with a view to the common good. We do not create our own reality, and social life inevitably involves a complex of restrictions and inequalities. Catholic social teaching, with its emphasis on the common good, subsidiarity, family life, and obedience to legitimate authority, tries to organize these features of human life in a way that promotes the best development of man and society.
Given these principles and our current problems, American politics today needs to emphasize the promotion of common understandings. We also need to develop those understandings into a usable vision of the common good, and weave our increasingly diverse histories into a common history guided by cooperation in realizing that good.
But how? Some practical points are obvious. The first is the need to strengthen particular human ties. That requires stability of populations and a greater emphasis on local connections. And that means, among other things, less globalism, more emphasis on boundaries, restraint on immigration, and a bias toward localism and decentralization generally. And it further means restraining unaccountable elites—in the current jargon, draining the swamp.
More importantly, we need as Catholics and citizens to present our best understanding of God, man, and the common good. To do that we need to reject scientistic and technocratic understandings in favor of something more classical, organic, and in line with longstanding Catholic understandings of man and society. We are, after all, living beings with natural, historical, cultural, and spiritual dimensions rather than abstract economic agents, self-creating supermen, or components in an industrial process.
The task is obviously very difficult. But what can’t last won’t last, so the work of reconstruction will eventually begin. Today we need to do what we can to hasten that day and make ready what is needed so that when the work begins in earnest it can go forward as intelligently as possible. And that requires, most of all, self-understanding and conversion of life.
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