For most of us, this past Fourth of July was a day to celebrate the founding principles of our nation and to reflect on the liberty that was given us by God, and secured by the blood and sacrifices of so many.
But, for an increasing number of people, July 4 was just another opportunity to discredit our nation. They did so not by calling us to live up to its stated principles — which is a good and necessary effort — but by attacking the principles themselves, and the people who rightly advanced them.
For example, Missouri Rep. Cori Bush tweeted the following:
“When they say the 4th of July is about American Freedom, remember this: the freedom they’re referring to is for white people. This land is stolen, and Black people still aren’t free.”https://fb962238e11217969424364e2ef32409.safeframe.googlesyndication.com/safeframe/1-0-38/html/container.html
National Public Radio also issued a kind of apology for reading the Declaration of Independence, a practice they have undertaken for more than 30 years. As a kind of barometer of the shifting political weather, what they once did with pride, they now did with shame, prefacing the reading with this disclaimer:
“Over the past 32 years, Morning Edition has broadcast a reading of the Declaration of Independence by NPR staff as a way of marking Independence Day.
“But after last summer’s protests and our national reckoning on race, the words in the document land differently.
“It famously declares ‘that all men are created equal’ even though women, enslaved people and Indigenous Americans were not held as equal at the time…”https://fb962238e11217969424364e2ef32409.safeframe.googlesyndication.com/safeframe/1-0-38/html/container.html
All of this posturing, shamefacedness and outright discrediting of our founding principles and documents is a dangerous shift. It takes away a shared reference point for conversation and debate, replacing it with an anger that dismisses the very principles that should form a basis for national reflection. Without these shared principles as a reference point, debate (or as some prefer “dialogue”) devolves into a shouting match — a kind of power struggle where there is a lot of heat, but no light.
Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. had a very different approach. He took our nation’s founding principles and documents seriously and used them as the very premise of his argument. In effect he summoned us, “America, become what you are! America, live the truth your principles proclaim! You have it in you to do this!”
In his Aug. 28, 1963, “I Have a Dream” speech he said:
“When the architects of our great republic wrote the magnificent words of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence, they were signing a promissory note to which every American was to fall heir. This note was a promise that all men, yes, Black men as well as white men, would be guaranteed to the inalienable rights of life liberty and the pursuit of happiness.https://fb962238e11217969424364e2ef32409.safeframe.googlesyndication.com/safeframe/1-0-38/html/container.html
“It is obvious today that America has defaulted on this promissory note insofar as her citizens of color are concerned. Instead of honoring this sacred obligation, America has given its colored people a bad check, a check that has come back marked ‘insufficient funds.’
“But we refuse to believe that the bank of justice is bankrupt. We refuse to believe that there are insufficient funds in the great vaults of opportunity of this nation. So we have come to cash this check, a check that will give us upon demand the riches of freedom and security of justice. We have also come to this hallowed spot to remind America of the fierce urgency of Now.”
Note that Rev. King spoke of this land as a “great republic” and of our founding documents as “magnificent words” of “promise.” He called the Lincoln Memorial a “hallowed spot.” There were none of the current notions of America as existentially racist and fundamentally and irredeemably flawed. The very Declaration of Independence, so maligned now by so many, was not wrong in its words, but in its deployment. The Declaration is glorious and a point of (civil) hope. Its words were a catalyst for America to be what she had always (and will always) aspire to be: a land of equal justice, freedom and opportunity under the law.
Today, I fear, we are dangerously far from the colorblind, character-based meritocracy King dreamed of. Increasingly, color is all that matters. If you are person of color, you are oppressed. If you are white, you are privileged. And this means war. The class struggle of the Marxists becomes the race struggle of America. https://fb962238e11217969424364e2ef32409.safeframe.googlesyndication.com/safeframe/1-0-38/html/container.html
We are better than this, and I am convinced Rev. King knew that and built on that. Our Declaration of Independence and Constitution provided the very basis whereby we were spurred to end slavery, banish segregation and abolish the Jim Crow laws that marginalized African Americans and others. It’s true that we have further progress to make, but abandoning our principles is no way to get there. The principle that “all men are created equal” remains true, even though we have not always honored it. Abusus non tollit usum — the abuse of something does not take away its use.
Further, one will not seek to reform or improve a country they disdain or even hate. It is the love of this country that will inspire needed reforms. Hatred seek to destroy, but love seeks to perfect and advance the best of what we are.
Patriotism, the love of one’s country, is related to charity and to the Fourth Commandment (“Honor your father and mother.”) The Catechism of the Catholic Church (2239) teaches:
“It is the duty of citizens to contribute to the good of society in a spirit of truth, justice, solidarity and freedom. The love and service of one’s country follow from the duty of gratitude and belong to the order of charity.”
St. Thomas Aquinas, in the section of the Summa Theologiae (2a2ae, Q. 101) on the virtue of pietas (familial love), writes:
“The principles (or origins) of our being and governing are our parents and our country, which have given us birth and nourishment. Consequently, man is debtor chiefly to his parents and his country, after God. Wherefore, just as it belongs to religion to give worship to God, so does it belong to ‘pietas,’ in the second place, to give honor to one’s parents and one’s country.”
Hence we cannot, as Christians, despise the land of our birth — a land that has so nourished and formed us. We are summoned to love this land.
And love is not mere blind affirmation or blanket approval. True love seeks for the best of the beloved. And, at our best, we are a land that has welcomed people from everywhere — from every land, culture, nation and language. Whatever tensions such diversity has caused, we have, in our best moments, lived with such tensions and overcome them to exemplify the e pluribus unum (“out the many, there is one”) that is our national motto.
The use of racist terminology to battle racism is a strange tactic indeed. True love of this land is both mandatory and (for Catholics) salutary. If someone uses “critical theory” to denounce America as irredeemably racist and unjust, they are wrong. Our founding documents and principles are the very foundation on which we must debate and build. Rejecting them is to invite strife and, ultimately, the destruction of this great land — a land we are summoned to love and bring to greater perfection on account of the love we have for our country, and for one another.
O beautiful for heroes proved
In liberating strife,
Who more than self their country loved
And mercy more than life!
May God thy gold refine,
Till all success be nobleness,
And every gain divine!
Msgr. Charles Pope Msgr. Charles Pope is currently a dean and pastor in the Archdiocese of Washington, DC, where he has served on the Priest Council, the College of Consultors, and the Priest Personnel Board. Along with publishing a daily blog at the Archdiocese of Washington website, he has written in pastoral journals, conducted numerous retreats for priests and lay faithful, and has also conducted weekly Bible studies in the U.S. Congress and the White House. He was named a Monsignor in 2005.