Although many Americans still embrace the notion of “American greatness,” our greatness is often referenced in such vague and inclusive terms that it is virtually impossible to demarcate between American greatness and that of any number of free or relatively modern nations. We are often left wondering exactly what it is that renders America great if we are, or ever were, great. Indeed, unless we can articulate some reasons to support our claim to greatness, our greatness comes from either pure luck or results merely from our self-serving declaration that we are “great.”
As we approach the upcoming Presidential election, in which “American Greatness” or “American Exceptionalism” will undoubtedly be referenced from the campaign trails, perhaps we Catholic-Americans would do well to take a breath between news cycles and collectively reflect on who we have been as a nation and what has made us great. And more specifically, I submit that we can reflect back on our nation and see philosophical, political and social realities that have brought out the best in American’s citizens despite our admitted failings along the way.
Overall, in looking back into our history, despite the sins of the past, I believe that we have been a good nation because:
1) philosophically, we believed that we could recognize truth as such;
2) for the most part, we organized ourselves politically and socially with the recognition of natural law; and
3) existentially, we were able to live out our lives, metaphorically speaking, in a post-Copernican manner.
America has been a nation which knows that there is objective truth. Philosophers call the recognition of truth, as such, “epistemological realism.” And although our Founding Fathers did not explicitly adopt epistemological realism, they embraced this philosophy wholeheartedly when, in the Declaration of Independence, they proclaimed that we hold certain truths immutable and eternal. In other words, there is a truth and it is not tied to us; and although this truth exists independent of us, it holds us up and shapes our reality nevertheless.
Simply put, we Americans believe in objective truth and reject competing philosophies which suggest that either the individual or the majority can ultimately serve as the arbiter of truth. Thus, in stark contrast to Marxism, which ties truth to the historical and political realities of scientific revolutions; in contrast to European pluralism and relativity, which holds the tolerance of other’s belief in their own truths as superior to any claims to truth as such, we Americans (at least in the past) have insisted on recognizing an objective truth which exists independent of our desires and transcends all other considerations. As stated so perfectly by Our Founding Fathers in the Declaration of Independence: We Hold These Truths To Be Self Evident!
Thus, philosophically speaking, we have been and can remain great to the extent that we remain faithful to our philosophical foundation – the acknowledgement that certain truths exist eternally and go beyond all secondary and tertiary reflections – and these truths come from God and these truths are self-evident.
Although the Founding Fathers did not mention the concept of “natural law” by name, they nevertheless readily embraced the notion of a transcending and governing universal law that provides coherence and a roadmap independent of, yet always available to, the human person. We Catholics call this reality natural law.
Indeed, as the Founders grasped intuitively, we can discern reasonably how to act because we can ascertain those laws that come to us naturally. We can therefore know some truths naturally in our minds because these truths were first written in our hearts by our Creator. And although the Founding Fathers were indisputably influenced by the Enlightenment thinkers, they adopted a vision of natural law that suggests that we can know how to act and behave because the eternal law of God can be known to the human person through the unique gift of human reason.
Arguably, few persons have grasped the reality of natural law better than the great Martin Luther King, Jr. It was nothing less than the eternal platform of natural law that enabled him to firmly stand on the higher moral ground than those racists who had him jailed in Birmingham. With natural law as his fundamental support, therefore, he was able to boldly and prophetically declare the God given right to violate peacefully any law that violated the God given natural law — a law which declares that all people are created equally and deserve equal protection under the law.
THE COPERNICAN REVOLUTION:
As Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI taught, just as the human race had to accept the Copernican concept that the universe does not revolve around the earth, each person who wants to move past narcissism and selfish desires has to experience, in existential terms, a sort of “Copernican revolution.”
Paradoxically, we Americans have been great collectively to the extent that we lived our individual lives in a post-Copernican revolution manner. In other words, despite the ever present temptation to act selfishly, for the most part, we have opted to respect our neighbor’s inherent value and reciprocal ability to share in all the benefits and all of the responsibilities that flow from American freedom.
Perhaps no one had captured the American vision of freedom any better than Samuel Adams who, just a day before the official signing of the declaration of Independence, declared: “For my own part, I ask no greater blessing than to share with you the common danger and common glory.”
In conclusion, we Americans should reflect on our past sins, but also reflect on the extent that we have achieved goodness, if not greatness, by recognizing our unique combination of philosophy, politics and basic human decency. In doing so, we simultaneously honor our nation’s heritage, face our many mistakes, but become better prepared to offer this nation’s vision to the younger generations and to the many immigrants who seek to join us in our American enterprise. And thus, by embracing and in turn passing on the true foundations of our greatness, may we then enrich and perpetuate a little while longer this risky yet ever so wonderful historical experiment we call America.