My Country Right or Wrong?

(NOTE: At a public dinner in Norfolk, Virginia, in 1816, Stephen Decatur, naval hero of the War of 1812, famously declared: “Our country! In her intercourse with foreign nations may she always be right; but our country right or wrong.” When the U.S. invaded Mexico in 1846, U.S. Senator John J. Crittenden of Kentucky expressed the same idea: “I hope to find my country in the right; I will stand by her, right or wrong.”)

Saint Thomas Aquinas, as reliable a guide to day-to-day living as the Church provides, tells us that after our parents we owe our greatest earthly obligation to our country because it is our parents and country together that form us. A reflective man ought to be able to see this for himself. It makes sense. Don’t all of us feel attached to our country (patria, fatherland, in Saint Thomas’s Latin) as well as to our father and mother? It is natural.

Now here’s a question (think a moment before answering): Is it really to the United States as such that we feel most attached? Isn’t it more to some corner of the U.S., namely the one where we were born and grew up? For me that’s Northern California, San Francisco and the Bay Area, but I also feel an attachment to the South because my parents were from the Ozarks, that’s where my grandparents lived, and back in 1861 the men on both sides of the family in Missouri and Arkansas fought for the Confederacy. One of them, a great-great grandfather who had been a captain of Arkansas cavalry, was still living when I was a little boy.

I’m talking about roots. Saint Thomas would understand me. Nothing like the United States existed in his day, not anywhere in Christendom. In fact, Italy didn’t exist, not as a nation-state, and would not until centuries later in 1871. His idea of country (patria) was of something local. His own patria, the land where he had his roots as I have mine in Northern California and (through my family) the South, was Sicily. Asked what he was by birth and upbringing, he would have said Sicilian.

It would have been much the same among us when the United States first came into existence as a federation of thirteen sovereign states. A citizen at that time would say he was a Tidewater Virginian or Eastern Shore Marylander or Rhode Islander as I will say I am a Northern Californian of Southern heritage. The land to which the citizen referred was part of the new United States, but no one called himself an United Statesian. No one ever has. The fact illustrates the dilemma suggested by the title I gave this article with its question mark.

Let me explain what I’m trying to get at. If obligation entails loyalty and the United States, not since 1865 a federation of truly sovereign states, is to be construed as a country, what makes it so? To what should one be loyal? To what can one be loyal? After all, countries are usually distinguishable by definite characteristics, features of a people and their surroundings such as race, language, culture, customs, religion, geography and climate. Whatever, such realities serve to unite and identify a particular people and place as, say, Sicilian or Tuscan, Norman or Picard, Bavarian or Hanoverian, or (in terms of modern nation-states and despite EU homogenization) Italian, French, German, etc. Even in the U.S. today there remain some real differences between, for example, native whites and African-Americans in South Carolina and folks in Minnesota and New Hampshire, or between Hispanic Puerto Ricans in New York City and Hispanic Mexicans in Houston. In other words, what are the unifying factors that would make today’s multicultural, multilingual, multiracial, multireligious and officially secular United States a country? Where is the unum in the pluribus?

The liberal’s answer is that a shared belief in liberalism’s own notions of freedom and equality make everyone an “United Statesian,” and it is true that although belief in them has begun to run a little thin, it is still strong enough that when the government sends troops into war it can get by with claiming as justification that they are “defending freedom” at home and spreading the joy of it to whichever foreign place they are invading. But I’m thinking here not of liberals but of remaining U.S. Christians, the kind of folks who would care about what Saint Thomas Aquinas says. Is the freedom of a woman to kill her own preborn baby by abortion or the equality of Steve and Bill’s “marriage” with that of Bob and Alice or, as far that goes, invading foreign countries “preemptively,” something they want to embrace, or should? How much loyalty is owed to any entity whose answer is yes?

The questions I’m asking are further complicated by a reality unknown to persons not of a certain age. However, those of us who remember the United States in the 1940s know it was much as today insofar as we had troops “defending freedom” in Europe against Hitler and all over the Pacific against Tojo, but the U.S. as recently as that was also radically different in one respect. There were in those days institutions so important in the lives of most individuals that not simply did they sustain them. Veritably, they constituted the country so that few then would think to raise the kind of questions I’m raising here. The most important of these institutions were religion, family and community.

The religion was Christianity, predominately in its Protestant form, and it was still a strong enough force in the life of society that in 1948 President Truman could describe the U.S. as “a Christian nation”. By 1960 he would have said “Judaeo-Christian”. Today we’re on the verge of becoming Islamo-Judaeo-Christian, the formerly Christian character of the U.S. having been that much more diluted.

In the 1940s most families were still managing to stay intact. In fact, in the third grade of the public elementary school I attended in California, there was only one kid, myself, whose parents were divorced. Today, of course, there is a fifty-percent divorce rate and we’ve already spoken here of Steve and Bill’s “marriage”. From it and all the households with stepparents and unrelated children, not to speak of single-parent households and ones with unmarried live-in mates, a “new kind of family” supposedly is emerging. Let’s hope, for the sake of the children, it works better than a lot of other stuff labeled “new” nowadays.

Community still existed in the 1940s. In the cities there were real neighborhoods, often defined by Catholics in big Eastern seaboard cities according to their parishes. Outside the cities there was no suburban sprawl and small towns full of life abounded. Most of them are dead or dying now and the death knell for urban neighborhoods began sounding with Brown vs. Topeka Board of Education.

Indeed, everything I’m describing – religion, family, community – is gone now or nearly so, gone at least to the extent of its no longer being a major presence in the life of most Americans, and all due to a process too complex to detail here but which has always had as its driving force actions of one kind or another by the central government – like Brown vs. Topeka Board of Education.

What needs to be grasped is that without faith, family and community, there is nothing left except individuals and the state, and the state, despite the efforts of liberals to confound the two, is not the same thing as patria. No one can sink roots into it.

Now here’s a new question: What if the state itself is now being replaced by something still amorphous and that has no agreed name but the reality of which already affects the life of every person on the planet? Pope Francis is onto this. That was evident when he recently denounced the “cult of money” in a talk about how ordinary persons, especially the poor, are being made to suffer by today’s “global economy”. There is also a recently published novel by John le Carre, A Delicate Truth, in which this new reality figures.

According to a New York Review of Books review of the work, it is about some men (and a woman) who love their country, England. They are patriots. Their trouble is that the England they love, like the U.S. of the 1940s, no longer exists. It has been replaced, at the time of the novel, by Tony Blair’s U.K., which is now the even worse David Cameron’s. What these persons do, driven by their patriotism, is commit “treason”. (I put that in quotation marks because it would only be from the point of view of Tony Blair or David Cameron, not that of the England of old, that they are traitors.)

What is there about the U.K. that drives them to act as they do? It’s what they see and have experienced as government officials. One character speaks of “the Deep State…the ever-expanding circle of non-governmental insiders from banking, industry and commerce who were cleared for highly classified information denied to large swathes of Whitehall and Westminster.” Another says, “New Labour loves Big Greed, and Big Greed has armies of amoral lawyers and accountants on the make and pays them the earth to make rings round us.” In the Department of the Defence: “Half its officials didn’t know if they worked for the Queen or the arms industry, and didn’t give a hoot as long as their bread was buttered.” One of the “traitors,” a professional soldier, tells his wife, “I fight for my country, Brigid. Not for the [expletive deleted] multinationals with their offshore bank accounts.” He’s talking about the difference between himself and “private contractors” who are “in it for the ride and the money.”

Of course in employing “private contractors” – i.e., mercenaries – the U.K. took its lead from the U.S. This is key, because in a culture where patriotism, love of country, hasn’t got a chance against the prospect of making more and more money, the U.K. is “just a junior partner of the United States.”

A final question: If that is the case, how are Christians in the U.S., citizens of the U.K.’s senior partner, to meet the moral obligation to which Saint Thomas and natural law itself call them? Can they? It’s a dilemma.