Drew ChristiansenJuly 30, 2012

I woke up Sunday morning July 1 to the voice of National Public Radio’s Krista Tippet posing gentle questions to Jacob Needleman, the philosopher, about his book American Soul: Rediscovering the Wisdom of the Founders. The program, entitled “The Inward Work of Democracy,” was exploring Needham’s view that every achievement of American freedom resulted from a spiritual advance of conscience (http://tunein.com/topic/?TopicId=39623772).

What I found remarkable was how much Needleman found in the life and thought of the founders that Anglo-American philosophy since World War II has made unfashionable: modesty and restraint in public office, the balance between individuals and community, conscience understood as a higher calling and the need for inner freedom among people who would rule themselves.

The following Monday I discovered in my mailbox a new book, Reborn on the Fourth of July: The Challenge of Faith, Patriotism and Conscience, an autobiographical account by Logan Mehl-Laituri. The author is an army veteran turned noncombatant conscientious objector, who now lectures about veterans’ issues and Christian perspectives on militarism and nationalism for the Centurion Guild, a group he co-founded for other veterans wrestling with issues of “faith and service.”

These serendipitous happenings prompted me to ponder the spiritual lessons of the American experience. The Fourth of July will be weeks gone by the time this column appears in print (it was posted on America’s Web site in early July), and that other feast of freedom, Bastille Day, will have passed as well. But doing a national account of conscience seems not just right for the season but necessary in these times.

Professor Needleman offers some starting points: the republican modesty of George Washington in stepping down from command of the Continental Army and then from the presidency; Jefferson’s penning of ideals he did not live up to himself and his proposal of a bill of rights; the religious sense of equality motivating Quakers in the antislavery movement; the recognition of national failings by Frederick W. Douglas and Abraham Lincoln, as well as Lincoln’s magnanimity—“with malice toward none, with charity for all’’—and Walt Whitman’s hope for America.

As an American Catholic, I look back with gratitude to John Carroll and the Catholic clergy of the young country, who, unlike later immigrants, were able to embrace the democratic virtues of the new nation without defensiveness. Naturally I also look to John Courtney Murray, S.J., who articulated a rapprochement between the later immigrant church and the American experience. From Murray and his traditional conservative interlocutors I learned to value “ordered liberty” as integral to democracy and to prize dialogue as essential not only to a healthy democracy but also to authentic theological development and a truly catholic church.

I also look to Josiah Royce, whose philosophy of loyalty articulates the religious quest of Americans for meaningful, committed freedom in community. Royce later inspired Martin Luther King Jr. with the inclusive vision of “the Great Community” as the destination of the civil rights movement and the longer American journey through history.

Midsummer should not only be a time to celebrate with fireworks, hamburgers and franks but to examine for ourselves, and to relish, “the blessings of liberty” bestowed upon us.

Comments are automatically closed two weeks after an article's initial publication. See our comments policy for more.
9 years 3 months ago
Fine words acknowledging our place, role and contribution this democracy looking westward from the Eastcoast. But our American soul was shaped equally by the role played by the Catholic Church as it moved up through Mexico towards what is now called the Southwestern United States. The creation of a society that can embrace and live not only with religious differences, but racial and cultural differences as well is something that the Hispanic Church prepared us for through what has descriptively been called the 'crucible.' It is the struggle with the questions of who is human, what rights do they have claim to, how are those claims preserved and protected. That in the 21st century is what we must continue to wrestle with and we are prepared if we take the time to acknowledge and learn from those lessons of the past 500 years - all of it, the good, the bad and the ugly.
German Otalora
9 years 3 months ago

Chris comment is a valuable addition to Father Christiansen´s article. But talking of a Hispanic Church is misleading. Latin America is not an homogeneous culture, and only nominally has one common faith and one Church. There are, for instance, many Mexicos, at least two of them: the conquered South and the colonized North. Most recent immigrants to America come from the conquered Mexico, which unfortunately is where poverty concentrates in my country. Southern Mexico is the product of a bloody conquest in which the Cross and the Sword were united in imposing Kingdom and Church; Northern Mexico (of which before 1847 belonged a good portion of USA) was ardously colonized by conversed jews, fugitive criminals, audacious entrepreneurs. There are not that many recent immigrants from colonized Mexico (more over, there are still strong family and friendship bonds between people living on the border States). Years ago we did some research and discussed in academic groups the emergence or reality of a "third state" 150 miles on both sides of the border. Just think of the late Selena.

There is also a strong wave of coversions from catholicism to other christian modes of living the faith in Jesus. Converted Hispanics live and share more the values noted by Father Christiansen than immigrant catholics raised in the authoritarian former Spanish colonies.

Maybe this adds to the "crucible", but I think that everything is about understanding and accepting differences. Let us be aware of them, and not use stereotypes as the "Hispanic".
sheila dierks
9 years 3 months ago
and what about the wonderful mix of theology and political engagement that brought us the thoroughly American gift of Dorothy Day and the immigrant philosopher Peter Maurin who linked American ideas of equality and decency of each person with the reality of image and likeness of Godde?
9 years 3 months ago
@ Otalora, I'm sorry I didn't take up more space to elaborate on the Hispanic history that is pertinent to this conversation. But the significant contribution of the Church in confronting the questions raised by the incursion into the new world happened when Bartolome de las Casas and other fine missionaries confronted the evil being done by others in the name of the Church and the explorers sent from Spain. Without these contributions many other events came into play. When the Southwest was ceded to the United States, the people already residing in the Southwest, both the tribal people, and the descendents of Spaniards, including criolos and mestizos were protected in their right to continue to hold onto their culture, their religions, their properties. I am being very specific, and generalizing about a broad swath of 500 years, but a specific political heritage that points towards international understandings of human rights. And the Hispanic Catholic Church I speak of is that one that moved from Mexico up into the Southwest. And 'Hispanic' is not a stereotype, if you actually new anything about the Hispanic history of the New World, and in the United States you might have chosen your words more wisely. I shall leave it at that.
Keyran Moran
9 years 2 months ago
I think that spirituality is the wrong word and that the term conscience TODAY hardly exists in it older meaning.  Two examples should suffice before we begin a Trance Dance about the blessings of liberty bestowed on us.

What liberty does the family have whose parents have two jobs each and no medical care-especially when 1% of the population own 90% of the wealth and the congress is chuckful of payees from lobbyists. Who are they working for?

But even worse than that- what blessings of liberty have the 2,000,000 Americans who have fought for Israel in Iraq and Afghanistan and they also come from 1 or 2 percent of the population. And how many have come back emotionally strong-enough to keep a marriage together and to get and give a job??

And worst of all, how many congressmen and women approved of Israel's slaughter of the innocent of more than 400 children?The answer is 90%. And the massacre from planes and tanks was predicted by Benny Morris. The kill ration was 140 to 1. And how many mainline journalists, Catholics and non-Catholics abstained or voted Nay by smoothing over the agonies of 400+ families. Does the atrocity represent average American values?

And how about our sterling bishops? where was their consciences during the 10,000 erotic advances on kids, teenage kids mostly.

And the silence of the last two popes and worse, their endorsing of Israel's daily crimes by pointing to the perennial "hostility" of the Moslems-which amounts to defamation of more than 1,000,000,000 human beings and right in line with Daniel Pipes' racial campaign,  one of whose readers was the mad Norwegian Herr Brevik.

The latest from america

The Buttigieg discourse is about sexuality, class, money, work, fatherhood, legislation. But do you know what has not been talked about at all? The mother.
Simcha FisherOctober 19, 2021
Is Sally Rooney the millennial generation's great Catholic writer?
James T. KeaneOctober 19, 2021
What Francis has done is to reestablish the priority of Vatican II in our liturgical life. He is saying, essentially, that no one can take an end run around it.
Rita FerroneOctober 19, 2021
The Oct. 10 vandalization of Denver’s cathedral basilica brought to 100 the number of incidents of arson, vandalism and other destruction that have taken place at Catholic sites across the United States since May 2020.
Catholic News ServiceOctober 19, 2021