To Thomas Jefferson and the other 55 signers of the Declaration
of Independence, the triad of life, liberty and the pursuit
of happiness encompassed rights given by God to be claimed,
honored and defended. God was frequently invoked as the
protector and unifier of our fledgling nation.
During the recent war with Iraq, our nation’s leaders were similarly
confident that God not only protected us but also was firmly on our side. Our
faith, however, calls us to weigh national interests in the light of Christ’s
What Shapes Our National Views?
What is demanded by the gospel and the traditions of our faith
is that we must "obey God rather than men" (Acts 5:29). This could mean
that our patriotism expresses itself as protest rather than praise. It could
mean that we love soldiers but hate war. It could mean civil disobedience.
What it must mean is that our patriotism be informed by moral principles
Last March, the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press
polled 1,032 U.S. citizens about influences on their thinking about war in Iraq.
Over 40 percent cited media, 16 percent personal experience, 11 percent education
and only 10 percent religious beliefs.
CNN and CNBC—indeed, all news media outlets—try to report facts.
Even the most patriotic conscience must weigh information not against the majority
opinion, but against the moral law.
Instead of—or in addition to—CNN, Catholics would do well to consider
CCC (Catechism of the Catholic Church) as a source. The Fourth
Commandment, one of the foundations of the Church’s social doctrine, the Catechism
states, directs us to "honor and respect all those whom God, for
our good, has vested with his authority" (#2197). Describing the duties of
citizens (#2238-2243), the text states the obligation to pay taxes, to defend
one’s country and to welcome immigrants. It also asserts that conscience might
lead citizens to refuse obedience and describes five conditions required for
legitimate armed resistance. Pope John Paul II used every avenue open to him
to discourage U.S. action in Iraq, because of his conviction that these conditions
were not met.
The tragic events of September 11, 2001, directly influenced
the decision to attack Iraq. Our president detailed a "long train of abuses
and usurpations" before declaring war, just as the authors of the Declaration
of Independence did in 1776. Both Pope John Paul II and Bishop Wilton Gregory,
head of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, acknowledged Iraqi
threats to peace, the country’s internal repression and its disdain of United
Nations resolutions. Bishop Gregory wrote, "People of good will may apply ethical
principles and come to different prudential judgments." In the views of both
the pope and the bishops, however, the U.S. lacked sufficient moral authority
for a just war.
Now that war is over, the question remains appropriate and patriotic:
Have this war’s consequences justified its declaration?
Patriots can pose this question. Patriots may come
to different conclusions. Real patriots will respect these conclusions.
September 11 and its aftermath have also made an impact on
our personal liberties. The USA Patriot Act, 342 pages of federal law passed
in haste after 9/11, aims to support our national interests and the safety of
citizens. Some of its provisions give law-enforcement agencies such broad powers
that its critics say that our civil liberties—such as freedom of speech and
freedom of association—are threatened.
This spring, proposed legislation that some are calling "USA Patriot
II" (the Domestic Security Enhancement Act of 2003) further tipped the balance
to favor intelligence-gathering over civil liberties. Citizens should track
this bill’s evolution in Congress to ensure that this second legislative roundup
isn’t pushed through, under the guise of patriotism, without benefit of review
and ample evidence of its necessity.
Choose to Pursue Happiness
On June 20, Bonhoeffer, a full-length documentary about
a German Protestant theologian who opposed Hitler’s rise to power, began its
run in commercial theaters.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s reading of the gospel led to his critique
of the Third Reich, his critique of his own denomination, imprisonment in a
Nazi concentration camp and death by hanging in 1945. Bonhoeffer believed that
Christians must be political. He diligently pursued a theology of engagement,
exploring the intersections of ethics and spirituality.
"It is only by living completely in this world that one learns to
have faith," Bonhoeffer wrote in a letter from prison to his friends Eberhard
and Renate Bethge. "By this worldliness I mean living unreservedly in life’s
duties, problems, successes and failures, experiences and perplexities. In so
doing, we throw ourselves completely into the arms of God, taking seriously
not our own sufferings but those of God in this world, watching with Christ
in Gethsemane. That, I think, is faith."
On July 4, we would do well to consider where the virtues of faith and patriotism
led Dietrich Bonhoeffer. "With a firm reliance on the protection
of Divine Providence," as the Declaration of Independence
concludes, we are called to act conscientiously and courageously
as well. C.A.M.