Religion & Independence

Here, in Juneau, Alaska, the 4th of July is a bigger deal than anywhere else I’ve lived. Historically, it was one of two days that the miners had off from work. And history speaks loudly in this part of the world. So, last night, I joined throngs of people on the pier for fireworks. Hurrah!

When I was a kid, I was always sort of surprised we didn’t have to go to Mass on the 4th of July. Amid all the excitement of the parading and barbequing, weren’t we going to mark the holiday with Mass? I can remember feeling sort of hollow, as if I wasn’t quite sure it “counted” as a holiday if we didn’t go to Mass.

Catholics have come a long way in this country. Celebrate this nation’s independence by attending a papist religious ritual? Heresy in the early 19th century. By the end of the 20th, there I was thinking Mass was a vital part of marking the day. Talk about transition!

The intermingling of church and state is hard to ignore on a day like today. The president will ask God to bless America. Obama will defend his patriotism in the face of those who hint at an unpatriotic religious identity. Families of fallen soldiers will offer prayers of remembrance. Many Catholics will, indeed, attend Mass and pray for the nation.

For a country where separation of church and state originated, the reverence with which we celebrate the 4th of July is a subtle reminder of just how impossible it is to separate them.


15 thoughts on “Religion & Independence

  1. I went to Mass today in suburban Madison. The closing song was “God Bless America” followed by an instrumental of the “Star Spangled Banner” as people left the pews. It got a rousing applause from those assembled. No, I don’t think it can be separated quite so seamlessly.

  2. Yes! The important parts of us are always a part of us every day, whatever day. Interesting reflection upon the pagan ritual and how it would be sacrilege back then.

    My issue with 4th of july, as well as new year’s, memorial day, labor day and maybe another I cant think of, don’t have a lot of meaning for me personally. So, I feel a little less than participatory, however, I never like to miss a gathering of friends!

  3. Your reflection brings to mind a class I took on American Catholicism, and the main question that was never resolved was: should we be both American and Catholic? Until the end of the 19th century, as you point out, very few Catholics felt they could truly be American (that is if they wanted to be because the vast majority were European Catholic immigrants who would never fully feel American until the 2nd or 3rd generation), but then came the Americanists (namely James Cardinal Gibbons and Archbishop John Ireland) who interestingly were condemned by the pope even though their ideology lead to John Courtney Murray’s ‘We Hold These Truths,’ which had a strong influence on JFK’s election and on John XXIII commencing of Vatican II. Today, it seems that most Catholics in this country are Americans first and Catholics second. For example, many People make their political decisions before they really know what the Church teaches about a topic and then decide whether the church is “right or wrong” about that particular issue rather than questioning the government.

    This topic is a can of worms to be sure. I really struggle with my “Americanism” but I also firmly believe that the counter-cultural element of Christianity should not lead to a sub-culture that refuses to engage the world. Vatican II’s Pastoral Constitution on the Church IN the Modern World clearly struggles with this topics as well since Article 3

  4. Continued…
    says “Inspired by no earthly ambition, the Church seeks but a solitary goal: to carry forward the work of Christ under the lead of the befriending Spirit. And Christ entered this world to give witness to the truth, to rescue and not to sit in judgment, to serve and not to be served.” We are to remember that we work for the Kingdom that lies in a future yet unknown, but we are to live in this world, listen to the “signs of the times (article 4)” and “spread on earth the fruits of our nature and our enterprise–human dignity, sisterly and brotherly communion, and FREEDOM… (Emphasis mine, Art. 39)” Does that mean spreading democracy to people and cultures against their consent? I definitely don’t think so, and that is where my patriotism really conflicts with my Catholicism. Our forefathers (yep, no women) declared their independence from Britain on July 4 to engage in a war followed by the ultimate oppression of the indigenous people of this land. Our Independence was the end of their culture and society and our manifest destiny continues this same form of oppression today.

    As for me, I a a follower of Christ first and foremost, and an American by chance of birth only in a very distant second.

  5. I’ve always been critical of the interjection of US nationalism into the liturgy, usually through the music sung during the liturgy. Today at Mass, no less than three songs from the Country/Nation section of the hymnal were used. Only one of which (God of the Nations – tune: FINLANDIA) had lyrics that reflected the reality that God blesses not only America, but also all peoples in all nations. As a Catholic, I find it distasteful to sing “O beautiful for pilgrim’s feet whose stern impassioned stress / a thoroughfare for freedom beat across the wilderness, knowing as I do the oppression which still remains in the power structures of this country.

    “The Shining City on the Hill” is a strong part of the mythology of America, passed down to us by the Puritans and still promulgated by the religious fundamentalists who wield disproportionate political power in this day and age. Christianity was used to justify slavery, the massacre of the Native Americans, and, by some, to justify our current illegitimate war in Iraq.

    The Catholic Church is global, multi-cultural and multi-national. I do not believe it is appropriate to sing songs that blend patriotism with religious faith. Blending those elements leads to all kinds of evil done in the name of Jesus Christ.

    Basically, I just don’t like singing America the Beautiful at Mass. It makes me feel bad about the Catholic Church in America. I love my Church and I love my country, but Christianity should constantly challenge our nation to be more just, loving, and merciful. And the rationalist principles upon which our country was founded should serve to call our Church to a higher standard as well. Unfortunately, our country’s history is brimming with examples in which the Christian faith was used to justify oppression and evil.

  6. What a difficult dichotamy to hold. When your faith is such a part of you it is natural, as the post says, to feel that something is missing if a special day is not marked by the signs of our faith.

    And yet, I don’t want to confused patriotism with religion. I don’t want to make it a faith imperative when it is not. This is how I feel about swearing as well. Swear words were only the slang used by the lower class, and what started out as a classism prejudice has become a morality issue, even being tied with some Scripture that seems to bolster the argument. Its not like I go around swearing in front of infants all day or something though!

  7. “Today, it seems that most Catholics in this country are Americans first and Catholics second. For example, many People make their political decisions before they really know what the Church teaches about a topic and then decide whether the church is “right or wrong” about that particular issue rather than questioning the government.”

    I find this critique deliciously ironic coming from a CTA-sponsored blog.

  8. As a committed, devoted, and, yes, devout Catholic I actually do look to the Church’s teaching first and foremost in moral and spiritual matters. And it is always with heavy heart and no small amount of prayer and spiritual searching that I would differ with that authority. If I sometimes seem passionate and overzealous in my dissensions from Church teaching, it is because I truly feel, with much prayer and contemplation and searching of soul, that this is where God is trying to lead the Church. And I expect I speak for many here besides myself.

    And I’m sure too that many in the political arena undergo similar soul-searching before taking a position contrary to Church teaching. And likewise, many do not. To say that many Catholics look to their political party for moral guidance before their Church is a valid criticism, regardless of from whom it comes.

  9. Sometimes it is very hard to even make sense of what people are advocating on this blog. Many on this blog rip on the church hierarchy, being in severe rebellion to it and its longstanding doctrine/dogma (a 2000 year old organization). They rip on our country (a 200+ year old country with obvious unprecedented Christian blessings. Unprecedented resources, wealth (many forms beyond any other country) and prosperity. Are we living in the same country and are we living with the same Hope of God in Jesus Christ? I’ll admit, this country is not currently going in a righteous direction, but no matter what, God will prevail. We’ve seen the end and we not only win; we are actually victors now!

    In addition to the above, writers here speak about the first generation of Americans as if the you yourselves would have done everything different and better.

    Let me be completely truthful.

    Had you come over on the Mayflower or any other early ship, you would have done exactly as those early pilgrims did. It was a dangerous world.

    Had you been born into a plantation owners’ family you would have done exactly what plantation owners’ families did.

    Had you been born in Nazi Germany, you most likely would have persecuted, tortured and killed Jews. If you didn’t do it directly, you probably would have looked on without complaint.

    Had you been born a Jewish leader in the time of Jesus, you would have been just as offended as the Pharisees, Sadducees and Scribes were and most likely, would have encouraged and supported Jesus’ death.

    Had you been a Roman soldier on scourging or crucifixion duty that day you would have scourged Jesus just as you had done to many criminals before and you would have nailed Him to the cross.

    Let me be even more truthful. I am capable of all sorts of evil. Only by the Grace of God, go I. It’s time that people on this blog come to the realization that had their circumstances placed them in a different time period and in particular circumstances, they would have done for the most part, what was expected of them (i.e.: killed and cheated Indians, brutally beaten and enslaved black people, ridiculed, tortured and killed Jews and many other horrendous acts.)

    With that said, now what? I get down on my knees and thank Him for what He has provided me in this country and the comparably easy circumstances in which I live. I guess that as a Christian, I would probably do that in any other country also. The men and women who lived before us were human and dealt with strife and tribulations that we will probably never face. Please try giving them the respect that they deserve. After all, the ideas that this country was founded on were ideas that had never been completely tried before. Ask yourself if you have the kind of wisdom, knowledge and education to create a better country from scratch. Could you get all to agree to your newfangled ideas? How long would IT last? I really doubt whether any of us has what it took our forefathers in education, faithfulness, spiritual and physical fortitude, dedication, forethought and sacrifice to do what they did. We are frail human beings that have a propensity to do evil. They were frail human beings that had a propensity to do evil and they still created, arguably the greatest country ever known.

    If I counted all my blessings, regarding the blessings of this country alone, I would never complete the list.

    “May” God bless America. Imagine if all the missionaries that the western world has sent out (especially America) had never been sent.

  10. Mrissman,

    Who really knows what one would do were they in the shoes of our founding fathers? I am curious to know what indicated to you that writers here think they are above that (or at least that is how I read your post, seemed like an admonishment. I never read anything that would lead me to that opinion, so I’d like to hear what stuck out to you to indicate that).

    One of the greatest things about the human community and history is that we get to learn from the events and people of the past. I think our ancestors would be disapointed if we didnt learn from their ‘mistakes’ and improve upon the foundation they laid. I don’t think just because someone is critical of the Church or one’s goverment that they don’t respect it or even admire and marvel at what they were able to do.

    If you can’t tell what people on this blog are advocting for, maybe its because there’s no set plan for any one person, much less the group as a whole. But that’s just me, can’t speak for others.

  11. Speaking for myself, the only thing I’m advocating on this blog is to try and know God’s will, and to do it. And yes, that means often taking a critical eye toward human institutions — including the hierarchy of the Church.

    It’s not criticism for the sake of criticism or tearing down old and revered institutions. I believe that the Church, and our country, are built upon wonderful ideals which have not yet been fully realized, and I want to do what I can to help propel us all forward toward the greater realization of the ideals we’re supposed to stand for.

    As for speculating about how anyone would have reacted in Nazi Germany or in the Slave-holding South, I feel your remarks are insensitive and offensive. I feel you are failing to acknowledge the brave souls throughout history who have stood against injustice, opposed government and society and other worldly authority in favor of higher principles, and often suffered and died for it. To unilaterally assume that anyone living at that place and time would have gone along with the crowd is a dishonor to their bravery.

  12. Whoa, amen Josh!! I hadn’t thought of it that way. Absolutely, we have great examples of brave men and women throughout history who, because of their values, acted differently than others with great risk. There’s a great movie with Sissy Spacek called “The long walk home” where, as a white woman in Alabama, struggles with how to help in the bus boycott of 1955. Her decision may not have been grand, but she saw what she could do and what she had that she could use. As a stay at home parent with a car, she was able to give rides to people so they could get to work. And that took great bravery for her because her husband did not want her to do this, and there was discrimination and even violence towards white sympathizers. For a house wife from Alabama, that was a huge decision.

    I sit here thinking about everything that is going on around the wrold right now and wonder why don’t I join the red cross, go to Darfur right now and just do whatever I can? If I care this much why am I not “doing anything” about it?

    Well, I imagine its a matter of calling. I can have convictions about how a politician should act and govern, but that doesnt mean I’m called to be a politician. Not that I think this is all about one’s chosen career though. I really don’t know. I don’t know what all the answers are. Gasp!! But I hope I will continue listening and asking God for direction.

  13. Another movie that comes to mind is The Mission — set around the time of the Spanish conquest of South and Central America, Jeremy Irons and Robert DiNero play missionaries trying to protect the native people from the conquistadors. Or for a more contemporary example of a self-sacrificing fight for justice, I reccomend “The Visitor” — released not too long ago and might still be playing the art-house circuit.

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