I didn’t attend the big “Restoring Honor” rally in Washington over the weekend, nor did I watch any of the proceedings. But what I’ve read about it gives me some serious concerns.
There was apparently a great deal of religious talk at the rally, amidst all the other political rhetoric. There were calls for people to “return to God” in order to effect certain changes in our nation’s policies. Several speakers described the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence as “sacred texts”. There were also comments about how “our faith has driven us to become the greatest people the world has ever known”, and how we “must restore the faith that once guided us.”
Those kinds of expressions are typically described as part of American “civic religion”, a quasi-faith in our nation and our Constitutional order. They are not unusual in modern politics — and certainly have been common throughout our history.
Now, I think it can be fairly said that I’m a pretty patriotic person. I love my country, and I hate to see it criticized, especially from abroad. I fly the flag every day, I serve in my state’s military forces, and I’m a proud Fourth Degree Knight of Columbus — the patriotic degree of our order. Several times, I have worked in government positions that have required me to swear to “preserve, protect and defend the Constitution”, and I have always been glad to do so, with no mental reservations. I get all teary-eyed when reading the Declaration of Independence or the Gettysburg Address.
I also believe that it is a requirement of my Catholic faith that I respect and honor my nation. Patriotism is a form of piety, and is mandated by the Fourth Commandment. As the Catechism says, “The love and service of one’s country follow from the duty of gratitude and belong to the order of charity.” (2239)
But when we start talking about our country in overtly religious terms, as if our founding documents are somehow part of revelation, or as if the United States is a holy nation of divine institution, then I start to get nervous.
Perhaps I’m hyper-sensitive, and this is just another of my strange obsessions. I certainly don’t cast aspersions on the good will and patriotism of anyone who observed or spoke at that rally. And, to be honest, I would probably agree with much of the political agenda proposed at the rally.
But this kind of language, to my ears, starts to come alarmingly close to the sin of idolatry, and I will have nothing to do with it.
In the early years of Christianity, the “civic religion” of emperor-worship was a significant problem for the Church. Many, many saints were tortured and put to death because they wouldn’t offer even the token sacrifice to the emperor, because they rightly saw that as idolatry. They refused to be disloyal to the true King, the one whose empire was founded on the Cross. They were much more concerned about being citizens of the City of God, rather than the City of Man.
Here’s how that played out in the case of the glorious St. Perpetua:
Another day as we were at meal we were suddenly snatched away to be tried; and we came to the forum… And my father appeared there also, with my son, and would draw me from the step, saying: “Perform the Sacrifice; have mercy on the child.” And Hilarian the procurator… said: “Spare your father’s gray hairs; spare the infancy of the boy. Make sacrifice for the Emperors’ prosperity.” And I answered: “I am a Christian.” And when my father stood by me yet to cast down my faith, he was bidden by Hilarian to be cast down and was smitten with a rod. And I sorrowed for my father’s harm as though I had been smitten myself; so sorrowed I for his unhappy old age. Then Hilarian passed sentence upon us all and condemned us to the beasts; and cheerfully we went down to the dungeon.
I love my nation. But I’m sure that Byzantines loved their Empire, the Franks loved theirs, and the Romans loved theirs. Those nations all passed away, into the dustbin of history. Sad as I am to say it, the United States is not an entity of divine origin, and will someday pass away. The Lord never promised that “the powers of death shall not prevail against it”. (Mt. 16:18)
We can, and must, love our country. We must respect our laws, take an active part in public life, promote the common good, and bring our religious values into the public square to advocate for policies that defend human life and dignity.
But St. Perpetua had it right. We must not do anything that would treat our nation as a graven image.