The other night, Turner Classic Movies ran the 1957 film adaptation of the Esther Forbes book Johnny Tremain, the young apprentice who was the Forrest Gump of revolutionary Boston. I remember reading this book when I was probably ten years old and it achieved its purpose. My young mind identified with all the noble sentiments young Johnny discovered in himself, most especially, loyalty to one’s country, which was an exceptional country, a country where, as James Otis says in the climactic scene, “a man can stand up.”
This rosy view of the American founding was furthered by my parents who took me to the places Johnny has been. We walked the Freedom Trail in Boston, visiting the spot in front of the Old State House where the Boston Massacre had occurred, the Old North Church where the lamps had been hung to indicate that the Redcoats were going by sea, the Green in Lexington and the Old North bridge in Concord. We went to Independence Hall in Philadelphia and to Valley Forge just outside. We traveled to Williamsburg and I even bought a tricorn hat. I became thoroughly familiar with Wolf’s Den, in the adjoining town, where a young Israel Putnam, one of Connecticut’s great patriots, had cornered and killed a wolf who had been attacking the local farms.
In adulthood, most of us shed the romantic, idealized understanding of America’s roots and exceptionalism. Many on the left not only deepen their understanding but reject the idealized version completely, and America comes to be seen as corrupt, spawning war and violence around the globe, and economic inequality, and, now, environmental degradation. America becomes, in this view, a source of evil, exceptional in its power to inflict harm in the world.
Others, mostly on the right, criticize America today because it has strayed from the vision of the founders. In the National Review, George Weigel criticizes the Supreme Court’s decision in the same sex marriage case because that decision is violative of the founders’ vision. Following on his hero John Courtney Murray, Weigel argues that the American founders were crypto-Catholics, albeit without knowing it:
Thus Jefferson, penning the Declaration we commemorate on Saturday, may have thought that he was acting as a simon-pure son of the Enlightenment by enunciating “self-evident” truths. In fact, in the long view of Western cultural and intellectual history, he was channeling his inner Aristotle, his inner Thomas Aquinas, and his inner Robert Bellarmine during those steamy summer days in Philadelphia in 1776.
I suspect that Mr. Jefferson, who was a fan of the Jacobins, would get a chuckle out of the idea about him channeling his inner Bellarmine.
The problem with the Johnny Tremain view of the founding is that it really only furnishes a sense of loyalty, it is a story not about ideas, still less facts, but about provenance. I am an American. America is mine. As Leon Wieseltier wrote in his stinging critique of identity politics, “To know that a thing is mine is to know very little about it.”
The problem with the critics of both left and right is that they embrace a different narrative that is equally driven by ideas and not reality, certainly not by history. American democracy, which is what we celebrate this weekend, is a human achievement, but like all human systems, it can be used for good or ill. More importantly, like all systems, it has an internal logic which directs those within its scope towards certain aims defined as desirable. Those aims may be fine, but the can always run amok and it is worth being watchful when they do.
In the same sex marriage case that has brought such consternation to some and joy to others, the socio-cultural aim that drove the decision is equality. For those who think the decision wrong-headed, this is an instance of equality run amok. It is not the first time that equality has been used to wreak havoc and evil. Yet, we should not dismiss the concern with equality just because we think it has been misapplied. Similarly, freedom is one of the aims of our democratic system, but freedom is an increasingly ambiguous word, prone to manipulation, made to carry more weight with less precision, than any other word in our lexicon. We have known since Adam and Eve that freedom can be abused.
My concern today, however, is a different one. Catholics, with our belief in the Incarnation, should be wary of all ideological analysis that ignores history. “Reality is superior to ideas,” Pope Francis told Filipino youth earlier this year, and he is undoubtedly correct. I think Weigel is wrong about Jefferson being a disciple of Bellarmine. And I know that Jefferson deplored the Catholic Church of his own day and that most of the founders saw the Catholic Church as an enemy of their civil and religious liberties. You have only to read their speeches and sermons.
As the leaders of our Church in the U.S. consider how to respond to the same sex marriage case, I invite them to resist the temptation to see this decision in the grand sweep of ideas and, instead, to walk the streets of their dioceses. They will encounter the daily violence of our city streets, the broken families struggling to balance their budget and their time, the struggling graduates burdened with debt and unable to find a job and those who could not scrape together the money for college in the first place, the immigrants enduring exploitation from unscrupulous employers and traffickers in humankind. These are the people who need the Church and I doubt if any of them cares one whit whether Jefferson was influenced by Bellarmine or not.
Christianity is not a prop for Americanism, still less for a particular ideological reading of American history. But America, the real America, cries out today, as in every age, for the ministrations of the One who heals. If God is to shed His grace on America, as we will all sing at some point this weekend, I hope He sheds His grace on those who are hurting, and I hope that the Church sees the consolation of those who are hurting as its greatest mission at this or any moment. I hope that we will recognize that the future of traditional marriage has less to do with what the Supreme Court decides, and more to do with the daily pressures real families face. I hope that the Church’s leaders will spend less time discoursing on legal analysis and more time healing actual wounds. I love my country, not as I did when I was ten years old and reading Johnny Tremain. I hope and try to love it as a Christian, not ignoring its flaws nor inflating them, but seeking to heal them.
Looking for comments?
We've suspended comments on NCRonline.org for a while. If you missed that announcement, learn more about our decision here.