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Rachel LuJune 27, 2024

There is more to life than politics. Still, most of us have a few searing memories of defining political moments that will stick with us for the rest of our lives. For me, one such moment came in 2017, when then-president Donald Trump was interviewed by the Fox News host Bill O’Reilly on the subject of Vladimir Putin. Disturbed by Mr. Trump’s obvious admiration for Mr. Putin, Mr. O’Reilly pressed the president to defend himself.

“But he’s a killer,” said the host, stating the obvious truth about Russia’s monstrous autocrat. “There are a lot of killers,” retorted Trump. “You think our country’s so innocent?”

It was flippant and thoughtless, like most of Mr. Trump’s words and actions. But for days, I could not stop thinking about it. My reaction went beyond ordinary anger or indignation. As a Peace Corps volunteer in my 20s, I spent years of my youth defending my country’s good name in the former Soviet Union. I knew who Vladimir Putin was, and what I expected the United States to be. I had never supposed that our nation was perfect. But until that moment, I had never before felt ashamed to be an American.

Regrettably, it would not be the last time Mr. Trump provoked that torrent of burning shame. He has been a cross for many of us, and as an anti-Trump conservative I have certainly felt the weight of it. Occasionally, I have wondered whether that feeling of shame should be understood as a coming-of-age experience, at least for people like me who work in the political sphere. Must that demon be faced before God and Caesar can be put in proper perspective? I am unsure. What I can clearly see is that I am not alone in struggling to come to grips with my own sense of discouragement, or even despair, as I survey the political landscape in the United States in 2024. This despair has become commonplace, a sad backdrop to our present electoral contest.

For people who like numbers, there are plenty to confirm this. Our rates of negative partisanship are historically high, and our trust in government historically low. According to a survey by the Pew Research Center released in April 2023, substantial majorities of Americans believe that their country is in decline, with 71 percent predicting that the United States will be “less important” in 2050, and 77 percent expecting our political divisions to grow even wider.

Sociologists and political theorists have also begun warning of the dangers of “Christian Nationalism,” a toxic blend of theology and political ideology, with resentful nostalgia serving as the emulsifier. Some of their concerns do resonate, but I find it hard to worry too much about nation-worship when another problem seems far more pressing. To put the point bluntly: Does anyone even like America anymore? Far from idolizing our country, it feels like we are giving up on it. At a moment like this, Americans need to look for pieces of their own political tradition that will enable us to debate our differences productively and chart a path forward. Catholics can find such a vision articulated within their own tradition, especially in the thought of the great Jesuit theorist, Father John Courtney Murray.

Hope for a Better Future?

It seems clear to me that many people do still love this country. But are we losing the will to defend and renew it for future generations? When I discuss politics and culture with my compatriots, I am struck by how world-weary and hopeless they seem; this seems to be true all across the political spectrum. It is widely assumed that our cultural divisions are too deep to heal, and as we look to the upcoming election, many of us are resigned to the assumption that our political leaders cannot be trusted, that our social problems are insoluble and that deep pessimism is the only reasonable attitude in our time.

I maintain some hope. I am still proud to be an American, and I still think we have a chance to bequeath to our children a better future. As a political conservative in Minnesota, I am often struck by the extent to which politics is overwhelmingly the thing that most alienates me from my neighbors. But bringing my garden vegetables to the state fair, participating in a local sailing club or sitting with my family at an open-air summer concert, I do feel solidarity with my fellow citizens, and it is clear to me that we love and share a common culture, rooted in our land and history. Because we are a relatively young country, in which immigrants played a formative role from the very beginning, people of all backgrounds can participate in that heritage regardless of whether they are first-generation Americans or descendants of John Winthrop.

Friendly neighbors taught my kids to ice-skate on our backyard lake. In summer, strangers in fishing boats will stop to coach them in tying a Texas rig. Then an election approaches, the yard signs come out, and I feel like an alien in my own land. I truly believe that we, as Americans, are much better than our fractured politics. But in an unhappy hour, riven by deep divisions, we must make a special effort to recall what we love most about our country, and to rise above the disputes and rivalries that divide us.

This is not a call for shallow sloganeering, or a denial of historical sins. We can acknowledge serious failures while still having gratitude for the blessings we have received, from God and our human forebears. That kind of gratitude may help us to weather a difficult political season with better grace. But more than that, reflecting on who we are as Americans, and on the importance of what we share, is necessary if we still hope to strive for a common good, the e pluribus unum of our national life.

Like other Americans, some Catholics have already given up on this goal. Surveying our fractured political scene and the ideological zeal of the progressive political left, some have concluded (in the spirit of Rod Dreher’s The Benedict Option) that full participation in America’s civic life is no longer a realistic possibility. We must keep our heads down, tend our gardens and wait for a better day.

Others would like to play a more active role in bringing about that better day. Inspired by anti-modern political theorists like Patrick Deneen, some Catholics have concluded that rapprochement with a politically progressive government is impossible and that American Catholics should embrace some form of integralism, bowing to what they see as an evident reality that the Catholic worldview is fundamentally incompatible with the separation of church and state.

As a practical matter, it seems obvious that a neo-integralist Catholic vision has no real chance of taking root in American soil. The people who yearn for it represent a fraction of a fraction of our population, and unlike France, Spain or Austria, the United States has never at any time rested on a crown-and-altar-based political foundation. It seems exceedingly unlikely that we could succeed in creating one now.

There is no need to despair, however. Americans have our own political tradition, which has from the start been deeply influenced by the vital contributions of American Catholics. By working within that tradition, we have a real opportunity to reaffirm our love of country and help to heal the rifts within our political sphere. We must call Americans back to the political vision that enabled us to become a free people, with a rich civic life and a high respect for human dignity.

Catholic Contributions

Across American history, many noteworthy Catholics have reflected on the contributions they are equipped to make to American life. This was a pressing question for thinkers like Archbishop John Ireland, Orestes Brownson, Archbishop Fulton Sheen and others. Pre-eminent among all of these, however, is the great Jesuit political theorist John Courtney Murray, whose defining work, We Hold These Truths, was published over 60 years ago.

Some, like the neo-integralists mentioned above, see Murray as an over-optimistic thinker whose hopes have proven false. I see the matter differently; to my eyes, Murray’s insights have become, if anything, more salient over the past half-century as we continue to wrestle with the promise and pitfalls of living in a society built in the liberal tradition, as faithful Catholics. Murray certainly believed it was possible to build a healthy ecclesial life on the foundation of the American political tradition. He thought it was possible, and even in many ways good, for American Catholics to move beyond the yearning many still felt for a confessional Catholic state and embrace our own political tradition. As Murray understood it, there are certain features of America’s political tradition that have made it congenial to Catholics—even in periods when they have struggled with xenophobia and nativism.

First, the American tradition has always respected the natural law, recognizing that the universe is ordered by foundational truths. Among those, we recognize that human beings have intrinsic dignity and worth as rational beings created by God. Second, Americans place a high value on freedom, which enables us to serve and worship our creator, which is our highest end and true happiness. In keeping with that vision, the drafters of the U.S. Constitution made the decision, unique at that time, to create separation between church and state, enabling all citizens to worship in keeping with their own conscience and convictions. This has obviously been critical for enabling Catholics to establish themselves and thrive in this country.

Because we were literally an ocean away from Europe, we had the opportunity to build a new kind of political tradition, designed to foster civil discourse and, hopefully, civic peace, even or especially in conditions of pluralism. This has been a tremendous asset to American Catholics from the very beginning, but we should also support it as a protection for human dignity more broadly. Civic peace is not the highest good, but it is still an important good, which has enabled the Catholic Church to flourish in the United States under conditions that might, absent those commitments, have ended in the suppression of our faith. The American Catholic story stands as evidence of what can be achieved when people of widely diverse views and commitments still find a way to abide by what he referred to as “articles of peace,” such as we find in the U.S. Constitution. In Murray’s view, the principles laid out in the Constitution and Bill of Rights have enabled us to live together despite deep disagreement.

As a religious minority, Catholics have always had strong reasons to reinforce legal and cultural norms that protect everyone’s freedoms and human dignity. But we have also been in a particularly strong position to do this, drawing on our own faith’s natural law tradition, which provides a framework for understanding both justice and human thriving in a deeper way that is nevertheless accessible to human reason. Murray believed (in company with earlier thinkers, like Archbishop John Ireland) that defining elements of Catholicism were still discernible in Protestant traditions, which enabled Catholics to discourse with Protestant compatriots in terms that were at least comprehensible to them. Murray sees American Catholics calling their compatriots back to a natural law tradition that properly belongs to all of us, regardless of our faith (or lack of it). This is why Murray argued that the American founders “built better than they knew,” drawing on a fundamentally Catholic tradition that they themselves only partially understood.

To ‘Hold These Truths’

The U.S. Constitution is now 236 years old. Do we still “hold these truths”? Every generation must consider this question, understanding that political traditions can erode over time. Some, like Professor Deneen, argue that the American project was always deeply flawed, and that our present political and cultural dysfunction represents the natural maturation of an unwholesome vintage. To evaluate that claim, we should first consider the truths that Murray regarded as foundational to both the American experiment itself and to the American church’s thriving.

Natural law is important in any society, but especially in a free society, in which human authorities are heavily constrained. If we want our leaders to be fair and impartial, not acting on tyrannical whims, then the people themselves recognize some higher authority or principles to which they are jointly beholden. If the president is not the highest authority, something else must be. Thus, in Murray’s view, it is of great importance that the framers of the U.S. Constitution understood themselves to be founding “one nation under God.” They thereby rooted the American republic in a longer English tradition of law discernible by human reason, emanating from a loving creator who ordered the entire universe around eternal truths. Presidents, senators and street-sweepers were all fundamentally citizens, answerable to a higher judge and a more enduring law.

We have not always succeeded in living up to our natural law commitments. Slavery and institutional racism represent two egregious failures in this regard. Abortion is another, and we continue to wrestle with the consequences. We regularly question whether our compatriots are fully mindful of the full human dignity of others: people who are sick, poor, pregnant or elderly, people who are immigrants, have disabilities or who are ordinary workers. Free societies must have these conversations as we work out the implications of our deeper commitments. As fraught as the discussions may be, however, it is only truly possible to have rational discourse at all when participants accept certain core principles. And a plausible case can be made that we still do.

Consider the terms on which we argue about issues like abortion, euthanasia or immigration. Debate tends to center around questions about who deserves protection, at what point a developing fetus counts as a person and whether individuals who are suffering should have the right to choose death. I have no doubt that the public conversation on these issues is in fact influenced by the fact that sick, elderly and unborn people create heavy burdens of care for others around them. But we still take considerable pains to avoid arguing that “people in this or that category are simply worthless, and the world is better off without them.” Not every human society has been squeamish about making claims like that.

Other foundational truths are, in the American tradition, often articulated in terms of freedom, which was embraced from our colonial days as one of the most important and defining American values. This was a regular theme among the nation’s founders, and was noticed as well by shrewd European observers such as Alexis de Tocqueville and Edmund Burke. Americans firmly believe that ours is “the land of the free.” Some might be puzzled to find that Murray views this foundational principle as a descendant of the medieval ideal of the “freedom of the Church.”

In general, America’s founders were suspicious of the institutional church. However, Murray notes that medievals valued the freedom of the church for the sake of two further goods, both of which are central to the American political tradition as well. First, freedom is important precisely because it enables us to fulfill our real potential as human beings. The church needed freedom so that she could fend off despotic rulers and protect people’s right to serve and worship their creator. That goal was zealously shared by America’s founders. “Instinctively,” Murray writes, “and by natural inclination the common man knows that he cannot be free if his basic human things are not sacredly immune from profanation by the power of the state and by other secular powers.”

Second, medieval Christians understood that freedom should be enjoyed relationally,in the context of a broader community. Human beings are social creatures and need freedom to live out that social nature. Protecting freedom for the church was, in medieval times, a way of preserving the natural community and human relationships that give meaning to our lives. Murray sees the Declaration of Independence and Bill of Rights performing a similar function, creating a space in which we can hold things in common but also argue about them. Murray argues:

Civil society is a need of human nature before it becomes the object of human choice. Moreover, every particular society is a creature of the soil; it springs from the physical soil of the earth and from the more formative soil of history. Its existence is sustained by loyalties that are not logical; its ideals are expressed in legends that go beyond the facts and are for that reason vehicles of truth; its cohesiveness depends in no small part on the materialisms of property and interest. Though all this is true, nevertheless the distinctive bond of the civil multitude is reason, or more exactly, that exercise of reason which is argument.

The state, Murray argues, has often been suspicious of competitors, preferring to enshrine itself as the highest possible authority. Modern secular governments fit this pattern. In the worst cases, this gives rise to totalitarianism, but lesser extremes can also be deeply unjust. The church has a mandate to demand justice and freedom for the people, issued by an authority higher than the state. No tyrant wants that, but our own country’s founders did. Our constitutional tradition is meant as a bulwark against tyranny, not a means of facilitating it. In America, therefore, freedom and justice are championed not only by churches but also by institutions and political organizations. It is a modern adaptation of a very Catholic idea.

Living Together in Disagreement

If discussion is a necessary component of civil society, the scorched-earth policies and tactics of our political parties can serve only to undermine democracy, eroding the conditions that enable us to live together through deep disagreement. This, in turn, gives rise to fears that there is no adequate foundation that can sustain our civic life. Perhaps that civic spirit has fallen away as growing numbers fall away from their forefathers’ faiths, instead pursuing new-age spirituality, political religions or just lives of comfort and pleasure. Maybe we no longer have “common truths.”

If we can look away from the intensely (and intentionally) polarizing rhetoric of our political scene, we might find more grounds for hope. Has America really ceased to be a country in which most people want to be free and to live in relative peace with neighbors? Once we move past the shrill catchphrases of social media and the manipulations of clickbait journalism, might we not find that our conversations about faith, conscience, human dignity and moral responsibility are at least bounded by significant shared beliefs, even if the differences are also stark?

My experience suggests that we will. Living as a political and social conservative in a very blue region, I find it possible to converse with fellow community members on a broad range of subjects, and even our disagreements usually point to some common ground. Those conversations tend to end the day the yard signs go up, but later, after the election dust settles, they may resume.

It is worth considering that the angst of our present age may follow, to a great extent, from common challenges to which no one has devised satisfactory solutions. Like most Western nations, the United States has overextended its spending commitments, but many groups of people plausibly argue that their needs are not being adequately met. What does justice demand in this situation? Our social fabric seems to be fraying, and our birth rates falling, as family and community structures prove less secure than we might have hoped. Can we address this somehow?

Looking to the wider world, Americans can see that their status as a global leader is somewhat precarious. What does that mean for our children and grandchildren? Meanwhile, we are uncomfortably aware that we stand on the happy end of massive global wealth gaps. Is that unjust, and if so, what should Catholics do about it?

In the face of such difficult challenges, blaming political opponents is often easier and more satisfying than trying to develop solutions. Politicians and journalists both have strong incentives to foster division, for the sake of rallying their own supporters. But as American Catholics who still love our country, we owe it to our descendants to try to do better. We have long experience serving as mediators and reformers, drawing on our own traditions in order to find pathways forward that might serve everyone’s interests. This is the kind of contribution our nation needs from us right now.

In part, it just involves a continued effort to engage our compatriots in reasoned civil discourse. Civil society, as Murray understands, is the result of rational human beings living together in conversation.“Wolves,” he wryly observed, “do not argue the merits of running in packs.”

Beyond that, we need to do our best to live the kind of cultural reform that we think our nation needs, building families, communities, institutions and parishes that can stand as visible evidence of what this nation has been and can be. There are no magic-bullet fixes for the problems our nation faces right now; we can and should debate the best courses of action, but full-fledged solutions can only be worked out over time. Nevertheless, we can immediately make an impression on our compatriots by standing and living proudly within both traditions to which we rightfully belong, as Americans and as Catholics.

Murray believed that Americans were richly blessed. We are. We are a youthful, modern nation with deep roots in an ancient philosophical tradition. Our stunning economic prosperity has reinforced the blessings of a vibrant culture and a diverse people. We love freedom but also the rule of law. Even in a disheartening political season, there is much to love about this country, and much to defend.

The United States may not be “so innocent,” to return to Mr. Trump’s claim, but our commitment to justice, freedom and public argument have thus far spared us from the kind of tyranny and oppression that the citizens of Russia are experiencing right now. The preservation of that tradition is not inevitable, but it is possible. As we engage our compatriots in civil discourse, we should keep this in mind and affirm without embarrassment that whatever the failings of our political leaders, we are still proud to be Americans.

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