This morning, as I got ready for a long day of cooking, eating, and spending time with my family, I took time to pray, reflecting on those things I’m most thankful for. This is a practice I’ve tried to make a regular part of my life, not just something to do once a year on Thanksgiving. As I made my way through the list, certain things rose quickly to the top: my beautiful wife, my amazing kids, our Catholic faith, our home in the woods, even the fact that I have a job and we have enough to eat when so many are struggling.
But then my mind settled on something that I often take for granted. I prayed, “Thank you, God, that I was born in the United States of America. That I’ve been given all the opportunities for success and prosperity and freedom that go along with such a happy accident of birth.”
Though we have at times had a reputation for arrogance, it needs to be said: Americans aren’t better than any other people in the world. We’ve just had the extremely good fortune of living here.
It is America that has always been exceptional. A nation that trusted its people to take the initiative to succeed in a way no other ever has, that has given them the freedom to live as they will, free of tyranny and the constraints of even the most benevolent despotism, rich in natural resources and founded upon principles rooted in the Judeo-Christian religion and the immutable dictates of natural law.
Of this unique American character, G.K. Chesterton wrote:
America is the only nation in the world that is founded on a creed. That creed is set forth with dogmatic and even theological lucidity in the Declaration of Independence; perhaps the only piece of practical politics that is also theoretical politics and also great literature. It enunciates that all men are equal in their claim to justice, that governments exist to give them that justice, and that their authority is for that reason just. It certainly does condemn anarchism, and it does also by inference condemn atheism, since it clearly names the Creator as the ultimate authority from whom these equal rights are derived. Nobody expects a modern political system to proceed logically in the application of such dogmas, and in the matter of God and Government it is naturally God whose claim is taken more lightly. The point is that there is a creed, if not about divine, at least about human things.
Chesterton is right. But a sobering reality has arisen from this creed about human things. John Adams famously said that “Our Constitution was made only for a moral and religious people. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other.” But that quote, taken in its full context, is even more powerful — and frightening — for its prophetic understanding of the danger that imperils our nation’s very existence today:
While our country remains untainted with the principles and manners which are now producing desolation in so many parts of the world; while she continues sincere, and incapable of insidious and impious policy, we shall have the strongest reason to rejoice in the local destination assigned us by Providence. But should the people of America once become capable of that deep simulation towards one another, and towards foreign nations, which assumes the language of justice and moderation, while it is practising iniquity and extravagance, and displays in the most captivating manner the charming pictures of candour, frankness, and sincerity, while it is rioting in rapine and insolence, this country will be the most miserable habitation in the world. Because we have no government, armed with power, capable of contending with human passions, unbridled by morality and religion. Avarice, ambition, revenge and licentiousness would break the strongest cords of our Constitution, as a whale goes through a net. Our Constitution was made only for a moral and religious people. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other.
After this year’s election, many people are afraid that the American experiment is over. The greed that fuels a government which placates its people with health care and circuses on one hand while stealing their liberty with the other is a serious disease indeed. As de Toqueville wrote, “The American Republic will endure until the day Congress discovers that it can bribe the public with the public’s money.”
Even more troubling is the moral decay that makes a populace believe it has a “right” to kill its weakest and most innocent and fundamentally re-define sexual ethics, just war, and the millenia-old definition of the family is diabolical. The America my generation will hand to our children will look nothing like the one I knew as a child in the 1980s. And it is also true that the America I knew as a child looked very little like the one my parents experienced in the 1950s. We have fallen far, and we have fallen fast.
And yet, I would argue that America remains. The world is also in crisis. Economies across the globe are crumbling. Brutal governments oppress their people and forbid the exercise of liberty. The Islamic threat is, as Belloc warned, again on the rise. In America, we at least still have the freedom to stand aright and say that what we see is wrong. Unlike citizens of other nations, I do not live in fear that what I write today will land me in some hellish prison, with no recourse to justice. Find a nation to which you would rather claim allegiance than ours. Identify a national ethos that still holds more promise than our own. Show me a flag that inspires more authentic pride in the hearts of its people, a populace that does more good for the downtrodden, both at home and abroad, a people closer yet to God’s laws — however far we may be — than ours.
We have strayed from the course, and are markedly distant from where, as a nation, we began. In the end, we may not be able to stop the decline that ends all great civilizations. But we still have a better chance than any other people to reclaim some of that greatness that we have received as a birthright, through no virtue of our own.
I’ll take that chance. I’ll keep fighting. Today I am thankful for many things. Among these for which I have the most gratitude, I am happy that I am American. I am glad that it still means something. If we all work together, we may yet see a day in which it means even more, once again.