We have to remember our national sins on Independence Day—but without despair

A crowd watches fireworks during the Independence Day celebration on the National Mall in Washington in 2016. (CNS photo/Carlos Barria, Reuters)

This is the first year in more than a decade that I will celebrate Independence Day with my family in the United States, and only the second in 20. My exile has been largely self-imposed: I left in the late ’90s to complete my studies in Rome, and, to make a long story short, I met a girl. Though many people assume I have largely forgotten American ways and taken Italian citizenship, the truth is that—proud as I am of the Italian part of my heritage and grateful to the people that received me with so warm a welcome—I say with John Adams, “I have not one drop of blood in my veins, but what is American.”

There is, therefore, much sweetness in this homecoming. The prospect of visiting family and friends, of poolside grilling and cornhole and bocce (a family favorite, of which we play a special and familiar variation), and of fireworks in celebration of our nation’s birthday all conspire (with many other things unmentioned) to make this a happy occasion, one by which to renew acquaintance with the things that bind us and remind us of that shared patrimony of commonplaces,in which we discover ourselves one nation and one people.

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The news of reporters being gunned down at the Capital Gazette in Maryland, and the headline breathlessly proclaiming that fully one third of my fellows in citizenship believe another civil war is in the offing, have conspired with other circumstances—familiar to anyone who takes any interest at all in national affairs—if not to cast a pall over this happy reunion, then at least to alloy the sweetness of the repatriation.

Our history is rife with examples of our failures to live up to our commitments. We must face those failures in this and every generation squarely and without stint.

But many of my fellows in citizenship, from this generation and from those before, and even some who suffered grave and protracted injustice from the United States, nevertheless have refused to drink from the cup of bitterness and despair. Feeling myself blessed in America—not least by their example—I eschew the cup as well.

In any case, my love of America has never been the result of fantastic or blinkered esteem. Our history is rife with examples of our failures to live up to our commitments. We must face those failures in this and every generation squarely and without stint. I learned that from America, too.

The words to follow—most of which are a revisiting of lines I wrote a couple of years ago for my blog to help spread the word about my book The Soul of a Nation: America as a Tradition of Inquiry and Nationhood—seek to express some little of what I hope we are not too late to learn from our failures and successes in the work of ordering our lives together. I say these things with a view toward recovering a sense of our genuine achievements in a way that not only permits, but encourages, us to face more fully the failures and outstanding work we have inherited.

I reject the tendency to deify the founders of the United States. In the same breath, I repudiate the tendency to demonize them. They were human, just as we are. Just as we have, so did they have feet of clay.

I reject the tendency to deify the founders of the United States. In the same breath, I repudiate the tendency to demonize them.

The men and women we revere did terrible things, even as they believed—not wrongly—that they were good people about a worthy business and even a truly noble cause. Neither their sincere love of that cause, nor the service they rendered to it, can remit so much as the slightest soupçon of their guilt. Even so, their guilty conduct cannot subtract an iota’s worth from the cause they loved and sought to advance.

For example: As we prepare to celebrate the founding of our nation—conceived in liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal—it is not only necessary but indispensable that we remember how many of the Founding Fathers owned slaves, and how morally awful and physically brutal was the system of race-based chattel slavery practiced by some of our forebears. It was awful even by the standards of other societies that practiced similar—and similarly awful—forms of slavery.

That cannot be the only thing we remember. We must continue to learn about how the men and women of the founding generation—and of the half-dozen generations before that—loved and cherished their rights and their liberties, and honored those among them who served the public interest honorably, without respect to party.

The men and women we revere did terrible things, but their guilty conduct cannot subtract an iota’s worth from the cause they loved and sought to advance.

We must remember as well how we casually cheated, bamboozled and murdered Native Americans. Nevertheless, that cannot be the only thing we recall when we think of the “white man” and his dealings, past and present, with the peoples from whom we took our land.

In this day, especially, we must remember the terrible religious bigotry that stained the souls and the honor of our forefathers in nationhood, even as we learn once again about how they struggled to find a way to order their lives so that each man could worship and advocate for truth according to conscience, and at the same time fully participate in society and in the public counsels—and how, in the main, they succeeded in so ordering their lives after much effort.

We must remember how the Civil War was and was not “over slavery.” We must recover our sensibility: our awareness of and sympathy with the ways in which our forebears did and did not struggle with each other in peace. Those ways teach us needful lessons about the real and genuine importance of the causes for which the parties to that terrible conflict contended in war.

In short, we must remember together how hard it was for our forefathers to recognize the humanity in others—was it not obvious to them?—and how deeply that failure to recognize the full and equal measure of humanity they shared with those others (who should have been fellows) wounded their own.

We must make ourselves capable of mindfulness. We must allow ourselves to feel in ourselves and in our fellows the limits fallen human nature puts to the moral vision of even the best of us, even and especially those of us with the best of intentions. While we must not be bound by the imperfection of our forebears—we must frankly face their sinfulness—we must recognize that we are heirs to their condition for good and for ill.

Most importantly, we must be mindful of the consequences of our failure as a society to recognize the humanity of others—whether they be the gay couple, the snake-handling Pentecostals, the immigrant family from Honduras, the Catholics with 10 children or with two, the Muslim refugee with four mouths to feed (he was a promising young lawyer back home before the war), or the young man with the mullet and the penchant for playing Merle Haggard records and the perpetual sunburn and three-beer buzz (he would be happy to turn the music down and even happier to tell you why your engine rattles like that at low revs). Because, simply and shortly put, those others are people, too.

We must desire to know all about the men and women in the founding generation and in every generation after that, who—in the main— loved public spirit, honesty, fairness, industry, kindness and charity, but did not always practice them or even try.

Our forebears knew that being good citizens meant first and foremost being good neighbors. They worked until they found the way to order their lives together (except when they did not, and remember what happened then?). They knew the world was dangerous, and they did not let it scare them (except when they did, and what happened then?). They understood how lucky they were, and tried to be worthy of their good fortune (except when they did not, and what happened then?). They were happy when their neighbors did well and they were there to help when times were tough (except when they were not, and what happened then?).

I do not know whether we are still—or ever were—the kind of people our forebears believed themselves and tried to be, except when they did not. I do know—as I know my Savior lives—that such a people is the only kind of people it is worth trying to be. This Independence Day, let us resolve anew to make a go of it.

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J Cosgrove
4 months 2 weeks ago

The Statue of Liberty was meant to show the world what freedom and liberty can bring. No other country has done more for others. Focus on what is good. There is no despair.

Stanley Kopacz
4 months 2 weeks ago

Well, maybe not despair but not a whole lot of hope, either. Having an ADHD blowhard poltroon as an excuse for a president makes me think we may be on the far side of the parabola. But I'm not going anywhere. I am an American and I like apocalyptic disaster movies. Now I can be in one.

Stuart Meisenzahl
4 months 2 weeks ago

Stan
Seems you have identified the protagonist and have self cast yourself as a " hero" in your own production....looking forward to seeing whether this is a comedy or a tragedy. Happy Fourth!

Stanley Kopacz
4 months 1 week ago

At most an extra, Stuart.

Stanley Kopacz
4 months 1 week ago

Happy Fourth to you, too.

Dolores Pap
4 months 2 weeks ago

First time in my life as an American that I am looking for an escape hatch because I am too worried that this nation is on a rapid moral downward spiral that would preclude my being a devoted, loyal citizen. I can't possibly accept and condone what is happening in our country..

Andrew Wolfe
4 months 2 weeks ago

Abortion and euthanasia are the greatest evils in this country, yet they are themselves waning in support. Fear not!

Stanley Kopacz
4 months 1 week ago

I'l ride it out here, no matter what. Being white and having some quatloos saved away should help me weather out the maybe 20 years I have left, though maybe in a forest somewhere.
Once I reach my standard biblical allotment of years by the end of the year, it's all overtime, but I wish you well in whatever you do.

Will Niermeyer
4 months 2 weeks ago

Oh Stanley get with the program. We ARE making America Great once again. It will take time to unravel what the past President cast.

Stanley Kopacz
4 months 1 week ago

Keep adrinkin' that juice. It's working well.

Chuck Luttrell
4 months 2 weeks ago

Good article but consider that America always seems to need an enemy - I am a former American having left in 1970 due to the draft

Phillip Stone
4 months 2 weeks ago

With the colonisation and dispossession of the continent as the foundation of your nation, as mine in Australia, was tainted by such ignoble beginnings, how can I understand the worship, even the idolatry, of people for America?

How have you been able to construct the pervasive error of greatness, best in history, unsurpassed and all that nonsense?

It is not truth, but what is it?

Andrew Wolfe
4 months 2 weeks ago

Aussies were by our side when we stomped the Kaiser, the Nazis, and the Japanese, liberating millions. This counts for nothing why?

Stanley Kopacz
4 months 1 week ago

But what have they done for us lately? Just kidding.

Will Niermeyer
4 months 2 weeks ago

Might be a much better approach to remember our good qualities and how far we have come in the beautiful history of the USA. Remembering sins separates us and sure is a negative way of living the Gospel of Hope and Joy.

Andrew Wolfe
4 months 2 weeks ago

I'm just going to toss in a few positives here. We held slaves, but to free them we suffered 850,000 casualties - 330,000 deaths - among Union soldiers alone. We stamped out the horrific bloodbath of WWI and in WWII saved Great Britain from the Nazis and liberated Southeast Asia from the brutal Japanese occupation. And while the Soviet Union did much of the work in conquering the Nazis, we had millions fighting them in Europe.

Completely separate from government domestic and foreign aid, Americans are the most generous individuals on earth with charities. But if you add in what is done through government, it's still more impressive.

In fifty-five-plus years of life, I have seen condemnations of America as a people grow more and more vitriolic with less and less reason. I'm proud my father was part of liberating a concentration camp. I'm proud of the rebuilding we did of other countries after two world wars. People treat American bigotry and American slavery as if they were unknown elsewhere. Perhaps they forget the yearly declaration of war the Spartans made against their Helot slaves. Perhaps they forget the imperial Roman practice of crucifying a dozen men on entering each conquered town. Somehow the evils of Nazism, socialism, Pol Pot, Rwanda and countless bloodbaths and oppression throughout the ages don't count. This is not even-handedness, it's not open-minded, and it's certainly not historically aware.

I am an American. Every fault of which people complain we have fought and fixed even, as I noted before, to the point of shedding blood.

Phillip Stone
4 months 2 weeks ago

Andrew, does it really enhance or diminish your standing in the moral order whether you are American, Australian or Chinese?

Sin is individual, personal, serious and under judgement.
Do you imagine that one day, America will stand at the pearly gates facing entry or rejection from eternal life?

What do you think will count for yourself in the same situation, will you demand entry by telling Peter ....
I am a civilised white man? No
I am an American? No
I am a Catholic? No
I am a sinner and faithful follower of the Saviour, Jesus Christ?

I am quite unable to pretend that a nation has an individual immortal soul and so can sin, come under judgement and either repent or defiantly reject forgiveness - all this talk make no sense in any version of moral theology I have been exposed to.

America belongs in the category of Imperial powers such as were Ancient Egypt, Imperial Rome, Babylon, Persia and Soviet Russia and as far as I can tell under the sway of an angelic being, presumably a demon. All doomed to fall.

Stuart Meisenzahl
4 months 1 week ago

Phillip
You seem to have little trouble casting judgement on nations. I believe you have indicated you are Australian....Given your classification of America as a distasteful Imperial Power on a par with Soviet Russia, I trust you have already booked your tickets to some place like Venezuela or Cuba where things are less Imperial and hopefully make you more comfortable with your surroundings

Stanley Kopacz
4 months 1 week ago

I think we should have stayed out of the Great War. The europeans would have perhaps fought to a stalemate and exhausted, vowed to never repeat it. The punitive Versailles Treaty might never have happened and WWII. More likely we weighed in because of huge debts Britain and France owed Wall Street.

Henry George
4 months 2 weeks ago

I don't quite get this national breastbeating that liberals insist we go through.

I did not own any slaves.
My family did not own any slaves.
My ancestors were decent people and tried to help all and one.

No nation has un-bloodied hands.

But how long must America confess its sins
before the Liberals are satisfied ?

E.Patrick Mosman
4 months 1 week ago

"We have to remember our national sins on Independence Day"
Why? In my Catholic upbringing when one makes a good act of confession and repents for his sinfulness, forgiveness follows. There is no requirement that he continually recall his sins and offer further repentance. The United States of America through its Civil War, its amending of the Constitution,its legislative and judicial actions made and continue every effort to correct the wrongs highlighted. The United States of America is home to millions of foreigners and their descendents who came to better themselves and their families. On Independence Day every American should give thanks to God that they are Americans and not the one of the tens of thousands still striving to enter this great country.

John Walton
4 months 1 week ago

It is written: “A sin forgiven is a sin forgotten”, at least that was doctrine in my Jesuit high school 50 years ago. Further, a sin is forgiven when there is a firm and bona fide intent to not sin again.

The entire notion of communal seems quite heretical to me. Where of absolution? One man died on the cross for the forgiveness if communal sin. Does Altieri find that insufficient?

Bill Mazzella
4 months 1 week ago

While we rejoice always that Christ is risen, we suffer with Christ that he is rejected and criminalized at our borders and know that the Body of Christ suffers when any of its members suffer. Simple but profound truth of Matthew 25:36-41. , is that the evil doers did not realize that Christ was in others when they abused them, while the good servants did not know that they were helping Jesus. The reason is that the good servant knows s/he can never do enough while the selfish do little and think it is much.

Charles Erlinger
4 months 1 week ago

There is ample reason to value a careful study of history. The truisms about the value of learning from the mistakes of the past are understandably respected. Whether one is interested in the political or military or economic mistakes, or the moral mistakes, there are useful lessons to be learned. But in the case of the moral mistakes, there seems to be an irresistible tendency to describe these, not factually, but metaphorically, as collective guilt. This tends to be an impediment to clear- eyed analysis of any mistake to be studied for the purpose of avoiding it in the future, or, indeed, for practically and effectively righting whatever wrongs that need correcting in the present.

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