Catholic Values Column: Great again

Jared Johnson

Catholic Values Columnist

Keeping tabs on America’s political situation has long been a pastime of mine. My family has been invested in politics for as long as I can remember, and it is important to have a general awareness about things for elections. But as a bored homeschooler in freshman year of high school, I discovered that examining politics and culture was riveting.

It was early 2016. Donald Trump was annihilating 16 other Republicans. Hillary was facing down Bernie. Soon it was just Trump and Hillary, locked in their iconic struggle for the fate of the nation.

I, having stumbled upon various conservative podcasts and programs, was hooked. It was more than just staying informed: it was spicy, it was scary, it was hilarious and it really meant something. It was a good hobby.

Trump’s presidency had its ups and downs, some very dark and some truly bright spots, but things always seemed to work out in the end. There would be a bombastic tweet, a ridiculous scandal, a fresh leftist meltdown.

Then the end came: COVID-19 struck and Trump ultimately lost the election. Scandal followed and the capitol was stormed. Suddenly, it wasn’t fun and games. I found myself abandoning my podcasts to sit and contemplate the persistent questions: what does it mean as an American to see your country, both politically and culturally, go down a path of self-destruction? Can it come back? Can you even still love it? Should you?

America’s flaws are as expansive as the influence and dominance it currently holds on the world stage. There is little public virtue, and our government is nauseatingly corrupt.

Many would argue that these flaws are fundamental to the founding. Though this is most popularly held by progressive leftists abiding by intersectional politics, it is maintained for entirely different reasons by a growing set of Catholics.

Some believe that the founders’ faulty, non-Catholic understanding of natural rights doomed the nation from the start. Others have identified points throughout history that have contributed to the decline in the moral or the political sphere. Whatever the case, some believe that America is so degenerate that we should abandon it to its vices.

As Catholics our loyalty lies primarily in heaven, and by extension, the Church. We can never believe “America first” as an absolute; perhaps it is possible for us to disavow our nation. Every country is doomed to fail anyway. The world is our ship and not our home; when our country loses its way, perhaps it is justified to go and seek greener pastures.

Two weeks ago, the Veritas Society debated the idea of whether the “American experiment” had failed or not. I was one of the main presenters for the affirming side. After two weeks of reflection, I still say that it has failed. However you define “the American experiment,” I believe it is obvious that we, our citizenry and our government, are no longer seeking what our founding fathers sought.

But it left me with a final question — one that can, I think, give us help answering all the others: has America failed?

Not the experiment, but the country. In answer, all I can think of is Rome. It began as an obscure tribe. Then it was a kingdom. Then a republic, an empire and a collection of city-states, until it reached its modern status: the nation of Italy.

Each stage indicates that a new “experiment” was proposed, whenever one method of life and governance changed or failed. Not every experiment was a good one. Nonetheless, whenever the paradigm shifted, people were there to carry it forward as virtuously as they could in the moment.

In the fifth chapter of “Orthodoxy’s,” G.K. Chesterton says this about patriotism: “If you like to put it so, shall it be a reasonable or an unreasonable loyalty? Now, the extraordinary thing is that the bad optimism … comes in with the reasonable optimism. Rational optimism leads to stagnation: it is irrational optimism that leads to reform.” By “optimism” he means a love of country.

Essentially, you must love your country for the rather unreasonable fact that it’s yours, not for any particular approval or admiration. Those who loved Rome for the glory of its old gods hated Constantine’s reforms even as they brought the empire out of crisis, but those who loved Rome because it was Rome were happy to see it thrive again.

Perhaps the experiment failed. Perhaps the founding itself was doomed. Whatever the case, we must be the people who are loyal to our land even when we despise what it has become. Only that sort of love can transform the nation and, if you will, make it great again. Once more, Chesterton says, “Men did not love Rome because she was great. She was great because they had loved her.”

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