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July 4: Checkpoints for Patriots

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 universal message.

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 and prayer.

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.

Choose Life

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.

Choose Liberty

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.

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