Patriotic Holidays: Catholic Misgivings
Each year in the United States, on both Independence Day and Memorial Day, I have decidedly mixed feelings. This is especially true at Masses which emphasize American “freedom” and honor all those in the armed forces who have “died for our freedom”. There is a certain myth-making which is part of our history (and, I suppose, the history of all nations), and I find it problematic.
With each passing year, for example, it becomes increasingly dubious to praise the alleged freedoms of the American secular paradise, especially in Church, and especially in quasi-messianic language. Some of the hymns we sing are very nearly blasphemous (for example, the words “as He died to make men holy, let us live to make men free” in the Battle Hymn of the Republic, and “Long may our land be bright with Freedom’s holy light”, which is one of several highly objectionable lines in America (My Country ‘tis of Thee)).
The hymns and sentiments too often smack of the “city on the hill” image which has been so powerful in American history, the idea that by a special dispensation of Providence, the United States has been established as a light to the nations (another blasphemous metaphor). Not only do such sentiments potentially warp the hearts of Americans, but they have absolutely no place in a Catholic Church, which exists to extend the mission of Jesus Christ, not George Washington or Abraham Lincoln…or Barack Obama.
It does not help that Americans have seldom understood freedom in a fundamental spiritual way, or that even our much-vaunted political freedoms are waning rapidly, as they are progressively redefined to serve anti-Christian purposes.
Then there is the problem of our military. By any objective standard, it is difficult to look back on American history without realizing that not all our battles have been fought with nobility of purpose for just causes. No, it is clear that America has not infrequently been motivated by self-interest, at times exhibiting a wanton disregard for human life. Of course, soldiers can be noble and courageous even when their political masters have put them in harm’s way without a sufficient (or even a good) reason.
Still, we must admit that it is hardly the case that all our soldiers have been inspired by worthy motives. A great many in American history have (despite their freedom songs) been forced to fight, or have fought because they were raised to believe it was noble to respond to their country’s call, or have enlisted based on some transient excitement which soon passed, or have simply made their living as soldiers, whether they valued the job for other reasons or not. Deserters have been executed here, just as they have been everywhere else.
Again, this does not lessen true valor, where it exists, nor does it suggest we should not honor the dead, whether they were heroes or villains or, more often, something in between. But on certain days of the year, there is a lot of posturing about such things to maintain our national myths. And this posturing continues to lead idealistic young men and women to commit themselves to a form of service which, if they were to look more closely, would reveal—perhaps at best—significant moral ambiguity.
Acceptance of moral ambiguity in our commitments is not always avoidable, nor is it necessarily wrong. But the modern State is an enormous power, from which there is seldom an easy escape. If the State’s ambiguities are to be accepted in military service, they should be accepted with open eyes, and with a robust sense of moral limits—by which I mean a martyr’s sense of moral limits.
These reflections do not apply only to America, of course. I am an American, and today is our Memorial Day, and certainly America’s power poses special dangers to the judgment of her citizens. But these reflections still apply to every country on earth. And everywhere they apply, they make me uneasy.
Instead of being uneasy, I would prefer to see exactly the thing that is increasingly missing—citizens who are well-formed morally and spiritually. Part of that formation should engender a healthy patriotism, a genuine love for the place and the people and the fruitful cultural and civic arrangements which have given us much and to which, as with our families, we owe a proper attachment simply because they are peculiarly our own.
But we ought not to deify our nations and their purposes. Even if we permit a dose of hyperbole on special civic days, we should remain aware of the difference between fact and fiction. If we praise some political ideal, we ought at the same time to recognize how imperfect is the ideal, how little we have lived up to it, and how prone it is to self-serving abuse. I freely grant that patriotic holidays need not be abolished. But if the typical excesses of their celebration do not make us uneasy, then we must—in our own civic sensibilities—make more room for Christ.
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Posted by: Canonigo Regular -
May. 31, 2014 6:00 AM ET USA
This is a nuanced, yet timid essay about THE great American ambiguity: thinking itself the "last best hope for mankind" but sending troops to dispossess natives, prop up despots, exploit cheap labor, bomb civilian targets. Since 1973 the USA has pressured countries to legalize abortion, sent more condoms than medicine to disaster sites, destabilized entire regions through "regime change" and made it our government policy that "gay rights are human rights". And idealistic young men still enlist.
Posted by: Thomas429 -
May. 29, 2014 10:02 PM ET USA
Moral ambiguity is not only due to patriotism. The Church historically has been silent and or aligned itself with governments. These relationships have frequently harmed both. The Church is too supportive of UN innitiatives that sound good but fail the "What would Jesus do?" test. The Church in the US supports numerous government programs that are costly and fail to help the supposed beneficiaries. The most egregious example is the Church's initial support of the ACA. It is too late now.
Posted by: Victoria -
May. 29, 2014 5:36 PM ET USA
Right on target, as usual! It is refreshing to be in touch with a writer who sees complexity where it exists and is unafraid of taking on our collective myths. Thank you! Victoria
Posted by: -
May. 29, 2014 12:07 AM ET USA
I don't think anyone is deifying our soldiers; after all they're human beings who were / are / called on to defend freedom. They're the sons, fathers, & brothers who died for their country in time of war. Our peace officers & firefighters put themselves in the line of fire every day when they go to work not knowing if they'll return home.
Posted by: nix898049 -
May. 28, 2014 11:42 PM ET USA
Not that it is likely to make any difference to you but you are quoting the cleaned up politically correct version of that line from the Battle Hymn of the Republic. Originally it reads, "As He died to make men holy let us die to make men free,..." And what have we done with our freedom, Oh men?
Posted by: shrink -
May. 28, 2014 11:28 AM ET USA
"...seldom understood freedom in a fundamental spiritual way.." Surely Jeff, this is factually incorrect. US citizens were broadly Christian until the 1960s as measured by church attendance and other metrics. The US is unique in world history; until 1947, the US was de-facto, a constitutional democracy with multi-denominational, Christian roots. Tocqueville gives ample witness to the Christian character of the US. Since SCOTUS 1948 McCollum v. Board of Education, things have gone downhill.
Posted by: skall391825 -
May. 28, 2014 3:46 AM ET USA
That strikes me as arrogant, condescending and gratuitous. "The Pharisee standing, prayed thus with himself: 'O God, I give thee thanks that I am not as the rest of men, extortionists, unjust, adulterers, as also is this publican.'"
Posted by: hartwood01 -
May. 27, 2014 9:11 PM ET USA
Any Mass on a patriotic holiday will see the parishioners sing every stanza of America the Beautiful. Come to any other Sunday Mass and watch the mass exodus before the first stanza of closing hymn is completed. The celebrant tries to get to the back of the Church before he is run over by the stampeding crowd. The choir is left singing to the stalwart few who remain. Worship of the Father is not as important as waving the flag by many in my church.
Posted by: GrdKv8526 -
May. 27, 2014 8:49 PM ET USA
A nuanced reflection on patriotism. Indeed, we must appreciate those who died, but we must also appreciate the higher purpose of our faith.
Posted by: Defender -
May. 27, 2014 2:41 PM ET USA
I've always thought of this day solely in the context of those who died in wartime. This country sent them to do a job and they did it. For the rest of us, we have Veteran's Day. During Vietnam, these were among the questions asked and only "answered" by the all-knowing radical left, as their venom sought to infect us as we returned through SF International, et al.
Posted by: koinonia -
May. 27, 2014 12:50 PM ET USA
I'm sure you can handle yourself quite fine on your own, Jeff, but as I suspected this strikes at a very deep-seated, problematic mindset. And mindsets are not easy to alter without struggle. The Catholic intellect must be properly informed and properly ordered. The Catholic is called to testify to truth. "...Not only do such sentiments potentially warp the hearts of Americans, but they have absolutely no place in a Catholic Church." You are correct, and you speak the truth. Stand fast.
Posted by: jg23753479 -
May. 27, 2014 7:50 AM ET USA
I'll file this under "Wish I'd Written That". On these holidays I pity many of our priests. They come under tremendous pressure from misguided parishioners to turn their church into a veritable Pantheon of American Heroes, replete with blasphemous songs, uniforms, and militaristic banners and flags. My own pastor has had to struggle for years with zealous vets, their families and friends, all eager to wrap the Cross tightly in an American flag.
Posted by: koinonia -
May. 27, 2014 7:41 AM ET USA
Intrepid narrative. Sadly even among Catholics we have tolerated a good deal of myth-making in many areas. Many would likely be incredulous at the claim that America "has never been a 'Christian nation'' as stated in class by a former secular history professor whose expertise was the history of Christianity. "We should remain aware of the difference between fact and fiction." Precisely. This is central to the Christian vocation. May our war dead rest in peace; may we make room for Christ.
Posted by: Ken -
May. 26, 2014 9:43 PM ET USA
Jeff - have you been hired by CNN as a guest talking head? I get what you are trying to say here but I couldn't disagree more. America IS the bright shining city on the hill - warts and all. Just imagine what this world would be like without the strength and resolve of the United States of America - again warts and all - a very dark place with no room for faith in the governing body. You really kicked this one into the stands
Posted by: John J Plick -
May. 26, 2014 7:00 PM ET USA
You seem to be so eager to throw stones at this country, taking a superior Catholic attitude, no doubt. You should be grateful for the privilege of being here instead of taking a "holier-than-thou" "I-have-always-known-better-because-I-am-a-Catholic" attitude. If there is "something wrong" with this country, than go out and change it and stop the "Catholic/America" polarization.