In a stifling July heat made worse by the fact that to live in a major city is to in fact live on a giant mirror, where glass and asphalt kick up the sun and only deaden further the bleary eyes of the sweat-stained rabble, I sit about five miles from the place where, in 1789, George Washington was sworn in as the first holder of what was then frequently known as the chief magistracy. That building, Federal Hall, no longer stands, and the city in which it did stand is now unrecognizable. New York in 1789 was hardly a powerhouse; the largest city in the United States was still Philadelphia at a bone-shattering thirty-thousand people. Today, New York has over eight-million people, more than the entire state of Virginia, which was itself the single largest state in the Union at the time of Washington’s inauguration.
It’s the Fourth of July. It’s Independence Day, and as always, it is a day of immense conflict for me.
Longtime readers will remember my difficulties with patriotism, which I’ve written about at length in the past but boil down to an unwillingness to be quite as generous in my affection to my country as I am often told I should be. I don’t believe in American exceptionalism. I don’t believe in the five-thousand year leap. I don’t justify our every policy and I don’t think our banner stainless. To the contrary, for this blogger American patriotism has too often contained more arrogance and pride than I am willing to stomach. Further, I believe that being a Christian, being a Catholic specifically, certainly calls me to be more cosmopolitan than parochial — rather than elevate above others my nation, I should place it in its due position amidst the powers and principalities of history: as passing thing which today commands the awe of the world and will tomorrow crumble to dust and the day after be completely forgotten. The only eternal thing is God. The only human edifice God has guaranteed is the Church. It’s only in Christ are we rightly formed. He speaks more to human goodness and freedom than the American Revolution could ever have hoped to, and our irrevocable independence is in comparison to our baptism trite and meaningless.
For all that, I’ve tried and have been trying to reconcile myself to my country, to make sense of that constellation of stars, that expanse of mountains and plains and rivers full of discord and contradiction as its people struggle to play out and comprehend the creedal charge contained in this country’s birth. We don’t understand our freedom. We never have. From the earliest moments of the Revolution onward, we have tried without success to make coherent sense of liberty, of representative government, of the republic. We’ve vacillated over the role of work and of wealth, and our founders were at times diametrically opposed to one another’s vision for this new and wild country straddling North America like a bull.
Freedom is not independence. It never has been, and it never will be. Freedom isn’t liberation from a crown. Freedom isn’t casting off a tyrant. Freedom isn’t representative government. Freedom can’t be found in bills of rights or constitutions. Freedom belongs to and is only received from Christ, and only in Christ is man free. That freedom isn’t the right to do what we want, but to do what we ought. Freedom is moral in that freedom points to morality. Freedom invites us to be good. It demands it, even. And anything other than that is the basest slavery.
Our government may be good, but it’s good only insofar as it provides a space wherein man might be good. It doesn’t give us our freedoms — it recognizes them. That’s important to remember. We aren’t free because “Congress shall pass no law…” We either are or are not free before those words come into play. Either we have freedom in Christ, the freedom that points to God and to moral and spiritual greatness, to meaning and grace and beauty and truth — or we have no freedom at all, and the only use we may make of the space a civil constitution provides for freedom is to debase ourselves and subject the world to our chains.
May God bless America, because we cannot bless it ourselves.