We Americans are a people who are justifiably proud of our nation’s many heroes and achievements. Our history is full of great explorers, soldiers, statesmen, clergy, and civic leaders—George Washingtonian characters—who accomplished great deeds. Their legacy is a long, unbroken line of service, sacrifice, and honor that gives substance to our Fourth of July celebrations.
This history threatens to be overshadowed, however, by the terrible cultural and moral decadence that has festered across our land. Great institutions once admired for their role in our country’s development are now tainted with scandal. “Alternative lifestyles” such as cohabitation, homosexuality, and transgenderism are increasingly accepted as part of the new “normal,” and those who disagree with them are ruthlessly persecuted. The perverse antics of Hollywood stars such as Miley Cyrus and Lady Gaga have virtually eliminated the very notion of indecency. And this moral degeneracy is not only tolerated by everyday Americans but eagerly and rapidly consumed on social media, particularly by our youth.
Although this moral revolution, like a cancer, has silently metastasized and spread in our nation’s cultural landscape, it has undeniably come into stark relief during this year’s presidential election. American politics has become like the French Quarter of New Orleans during Mardi Gras: an endless parade of sexual and financial scandals from the candidates of both major parties, each outdoing the last one.
Even worse, these scandals—which thirty years ago would have swiftly ended a candidate’s career—are forgotten almost as quickly as they surface, and are even excused as the necessary price for “change” in America. Most tragically, Americans have grown indifferent to the unprecedented moral abominations committed by some of our most prominent politicians and cynical about the nation’s leadership, or even leadership in general. This moral decline has greatly diminished America’s moral standing in the world and our self-confidence at home.
This decline is exactly what those on the political left seek. Not only do liberals celebrate moral degeneracy such as abortion and homosexuality, but they generally promote anything that diminishes or humiliates the United States in the eyes of the world. Socialists of every stripe see the United States as an imperialistic cancer in the world, relish in her humiliation, and sometimes work hand-in-hand with our enemies to overthrow the world order that she sustains, whether they be Islamist jihadists, Russian nationalists, or Chinese communists. Conservative, God-fearing Americans—both by instinct and by conviction—overwhelmingly reject this socialist-inspired hatred for America. They genuinely love their country and grieve over the crisis in which we find ourselves.
But for conservatives, the unprecedented scale of the moral crisis on full display during this election cycle has led some to entertain ever-so-slight doubts about their love of country and all it represents. Where once they would dismiss liberal propaganda about America’s faults, now they are tempted to believe that, perhaps, America really is just as bad as some people say she is.
In generations past, it was considered part of being an American to love our country and be ready to sacrifice oneself for it. But many patriotic, God-fearing Americans, demoralized by endless scandals and a dismal outlook for our country, are questioning what it means to be patriotic. Some religious Americans even go so far as to affirm that America’s sins far exceed those of other countries and other peoples. America is beyond redemption, they say, and therefore deserves a particularly severe dose of divine wrath. According to them, those foreign leaders who seek to destroy America or at least to knock her down a few notches, such as Vladimir Putin, are doing God’s work.
On the surface this position may seem legitimate, even virtuous. It appears to be based on love of good and hatred of evil. Its proponents appear humble with their endless litany of criticisms of their own country. They know all the gory details about the Obama administration’s recent missteps in the Middle East, the State Department’s pro-homosexual initiatives in Africa, or the latest scandals of our presidential candidates.
No one can deny that America is guilty of many sins. The American government has promoted abortion and homosexuality across the world. Our foreign policy has at times favored socialist or communist governments. No country has remained untouched by our degenerate pop culture in the form of immoral Hollywood movies, television, music, and fashions. As Americans, we must recognize these sins and make every effort to atone for them.
But deep down, this narrative is flawed. It exaggerates America’s real problems while ignoring her good aspects. Yes, the Obama administration does promote abortion and homosexuality across the world, but it is also true that America is the birthplace of the modern pro-life and pro-family movements. The president is doing everything he can to warm up to communist dictators like Raul Castro, yet American public opinion remains radically anti-communist, especially when compared to Europe and Latin America. Hollywood continues to spread its blasphemy and filth across the globe, but only in America does one find organized movements to protest them. Only in America does one find serious movements that present weighty opposition to the political left such as the homeschooling movement, Intelligent Design theory, global warming skepticism, the gun-rights movement, not to mention Americans’ rejection of socialized medicine or UN-style internationalism.
So in the midst of what is, by all appearances, our country’s worst crisis ever, what does love of country mean today? How should a patriotic American confront our national crisis? How can we denounce our national sins while maintaining our national pride? And what can we do to work for her eventual conversion?
In her wisdom born from 2,000 years of experience converting the nations, the Catholic Church provides a truly balanced solution to this problem.
The Church teaches that love of country is a duty that comes from the Fourth Commandment, “Honor thy father and thy mother.” This Commandment, based in natural law, obliges us to respect, honor, obey, and have filial piety towards the parents who gave us life and the family that formed and raised us. It extends not only to our immediate nuclear family, but to our extended family including respect for one’s deceased ancestors.
God did not place any conditions on the Fourth Commandment, and therefore there are no conditions on our filial duties towards our parents. Even if they fall into sin, we are still obliged to love and respect them, without conferring any concessions or approval to the sin itself.
An authentic nation, before all else, is a family of families. It is not an assembly of atomized individuals or a corporate conglomerate but a vibrant patchwork of family trees, blood ties, and personal relationships. Since the nation is an extension of the family, our filial duties therefore extend beyond to the nation as a whole. Just as we must love our parents, we must love the nation of our birth and be willing to fight for it. Nations, like families, have members who perform great acts of virtue that bring honor to the nation as well as members who commit horrible crimes that bring disgrace. Some sins, such as iniquitous laws or acts of government, when not opposed, become national sins. But no matter how many national or individual sins we commit, our duty of patriotism is never suspended.
A good way to look at our sad situation today is through the eyes of the saintly missionaries that the Church sent to the four corners of the earth. Beginning with the Apostles, the Church fulfilled Our Lord Jesus Christ’s command in the Gospel, “Going therefore, teach ye all nations; baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost.”1 Every one of the Apostles died or suffered as martyrs while on mission to convert the Jews and Gentiles across the known world.
Like the Fourth Commandment, Our Lord’s directive does not contain any conditions about the morals of the pagan nations in question. He instructed the Apostles and their successors to work towards the conversion of every nation. Omniscient, He was certainly aware of the perversions widespread among the pagan peoples. He knew the difficulties and resistance that the pagans would show towards the Christian missionaries. Yet He desired that all nations, like all sinners, be baptized and saved.
The great missionaries such as Saint Patrick, Saint Boniface, Saint Augustine of Canterbury, Saint Benedict, Saint Isaac Jogues, Saint Junipero Serra, Saint Francis Xavier, Saint Remigius, and innumerable others encountered pagan nations in varying degrees of savagery. It was difficult, dangerous, brutal, long, and usually deadly work to convert the nations to the True Faith. It would have been very easy for these apostles to stay in Rome and save their souls in peace and relative comfort. Why did they go to the forests of Germany, the deserts of the Middle East, and the jungles of the Americas to convert these savage, often ungrateful peoples?
Because, in addition to their sublime mission of saving souls, these missionaries saw that Divine Providence assigned each pagan nation a particular mission to accomplish, and that by baptizing that nation they were participating in the realization of that sublime mission. Saint Patrick, as the father of Catholic Ireland, undoubtedly foresaw the missionary zeal that the Irish people were to so famously display centuries later. Pope Saint Gregory the Great, upon seeing pagan Angle slaves for sale at a slave market in Rome, famously exclaimed, “They are not Angles but Angels if they be Christian” and commissioned Saint Augustine of Canterbury to convert their nation. Saint Isaac Jogues and the North American martyrs, even as they were suffering unspeakable tortures at the hands of the savage Iroquois, dreamed of a truly Roman Catholic Franco-Indian civilization in the New World.
But perhaps the example of Saint Joan of Arc is the most fitting one for us today. The France into which the Maid of Orleans was born had fallen much since the happy times of King Saint Louis IX. Half of the kingdom, including the capital, had fallen into the hands of a foreign power, England. Much of the nobility and merchant classes had died in battle or colluded with the enemy. King Charles VI, France’s legitimate king, was insane. The Renaissance spirit, having sapped the religious fervor of the French, was gradually overthrowing the traditional social structures of the medieval order. Even worse, Christendom was divided by the Great Western Schism, with its three competing Popes. On the minds of every Frenchmen were thoughts of fear, uncertainty, pessimism, and despondency. In many important ways, the France of Saint Joan of Arc was very much like today’s United States.
And just like today, it was easy for her contemporaries to fall into discouragement and give up the fight against the English. To anyone desirous of rekindling it they could throw up their hands in despair and cynically recite a long litany of sins committed by the king, the bishops, and the people. It seemed that the France of King Clovis, Saint Remigius, Godfrey of Bouillon, and Saint Louis IX, the France of so many saints and blessings, the France of the Crusades, the first-born daughter of the Church, had finally and irrevocably broken its alliance with God.
That spirit of cowardice and defeatism was exactly what Saint Joan of Arc came to dispel. She certainly saw very clearly the sins and apostasy of her era. But unlike most of her countrymen, she saw France through the eyes of Divine Providence. She saw her country as Our Lord Jesus Christ saw Saul on the road to Damascus—a great sinner no doubt—but one with a glorious and sublime mission to perform. She did not see France so much as it was but as it was called to be, a totally Roman, Apostolic, Catholic nation at the service of God and Our Blessed Mother.
In His infinite mercy, God grants a plan and a mission for every person and for every nation. He gave one to the savage Indians of the Americas, the wild barbarians of sixth century Europe, and the decadent French of Saint Joan of Arc’s time. God also has a glorious mission for the United States of America. Although we are far from accomplishing this mission, occasional glimpses of it can be seen shining in the pages of our history. Although imperfect, the Washingtonian men and women who have always existed and still exist in America, the very best the nation has to offer, the long red, white, and blue line of heroes that inspire us, are like sign posts pointing us in the direction of our national calling. Just as the qualities of soul of Saint Paul—his tenacity and radicality—could already be seen before his conversion, we can see traces of a future glorious role for the United States in the footsteps of her heroes.
It is all too easy to lose sight of this vision while fighting in the dirty trenches of the Culture War, or even to flee from the battlefield entirely after certain tactical defeats. But like Saint Joan of Arc saw France, we must see our country as the entirely Christian nation that God desires it to be. Most of all, we must remember that a nation has not truly reached complete moral depravity until it no longer has men faithful to its divine mission and who are willing to fight for it.