Monday, February 19, 2007

Presidents Day

Today the United States of America celebrates the anniversary of the birth of her first president, George Washington. There is much confusion over this holiday, so for clarity, please read here or here. Before 1971, there were separate commemorations for the birthdays of both President Lincoln and Washington. "Presidents Day", supposedly commemorating all of the American Presidents, is mainly a fiction made up by advertisers wanting a three-day shopping holiday. But anyway it is a good day to think about the American Republic and its relationship to religion.

Both religion and patriotism are moral requirements under the natural law as a matter of justice. These are moral virtues, and as such, we should expect to see these being observed among all moral peoples of all places and times. And therefore we should not be surprised that there is a close linkage between the virtues of patriotism and religion, and also their lack.

However, the moral virtue of religion is not to be confused with the theological virtue of faith, and this is easily seen in the actual external practice of religion of the American presidents. Certainly most of the early presidents practiced and encouraged the virtue of religion to their fellow countrymen in spite of little evidence of faith. This is most obvious with George Washington himself, who regularly attended Anglican (later called Episcopalian) church services, even attending in spite of much personal inconvenience. However, most evidence states that he did not receive communion (although he may have before the revolution), and even stopped attending communion services altogether. This of course would be consistent with his affiliation with Freemasonry and his adherence to Deism. It would appear, that as a man of conscience, Washington would not receive communion since the sign value of that would contradict the limits of his faith. That is in severe contrast with modern politicians who demand communion as a right, even though they appear not to have the faith.

Likewise, most of the early presidents were of the same mold as Washington: most supported religion, most attended church, and none until Benjamin Harrison (president from 1889 to 1893) could be considered faithful communicating Christians while in office. Stories of presidential deathbed conversions are mainly apocryphal.

It has always been a difficult matter for a Catholic deciding whether or not to support the principles of the American revolution and the American form of government. Here we have the breach between the Traditionalists and the Neo-Conservatives (or Neo-Liberals); both of which groups uneasily coexist together under the general title of "conservatives". Of course, much of the English speaking world is not American and mainly falls under the general rule of Her Royal Highness Queen Elizabeth II. Very many of these Catholic Conservatives or Traditionalists do want to retain the Monarchy, and would dearly hope for the disestablishment of the Church of England in favor of the Catholic Faith. However, a Catholic may support secular republics to varying degrees, and while it is the tendency for Neo-Conservatives to falsely think that the American form of government is ideal, this kind of secularity is certainly supportable, even if it isn't perfect. It has been said as long ago as the 1950s that Catholics will be the final supporters of the traditional American style of government, and that now certainly appears to be true.

Catholic thinking, while indeed preferring a confessional State, and having little problem with monarchy, has long experience with the republican form of government and early rejected absolutism and the notion of the divine right of kings. However, there is no ideal Catholic government and we always need to keep in mind the distinction made by Saint Augustine between the City of Man and the City of God. Attempts to create a Heaven on Earth are certainly doomed to hellish failure.

A measure of secularity in government has long been viewed as neccessary, since faith cannot be imposed by force (although religion certainly has been imposed), however no faithful Catholic can support the notion of secularism in government. There is a fine line here: we do not want churches full of committed nonbelievers nor do we want unbelief to be officially supported by the State. Likewise, it is a moral imperative that one follows one's conscience (like Washington refusing communion) while also there is a grave necessity for a person to carefully form their own conscience and influence the formation of conscience of dependents.

A common problem in America is State idolatry. Especially since we have no Established Church, the State itself is seen as a church, especially among some nationalistic liberal reformers. This goes beyond patriotism. Instead, a prior claim of faith is needed for someone to be a good patriot.

The Church has nearly always coexisted with other religions, and has traditionally made wide allowance for other cults, and so generally allowed a measure of explicit tolerance for Jews, Muslims, or pagans, especially during the Middle Ages, although certainly she never believed in total freedom of religion. Greater intolerance generally started after the Reformation, when religion was widely imposed by force. The American system of government still has the seeds of the pre-Enlightenment natural law morality that tolerates other religion, and indeed this land was fertile soil for the spread and growth of Catholicism.

The American revolution turned out fairly well, unlike the liberal revolutions that followed in Europe and Latin America. Those revolutions were extremely bloody and highly irreligious, and no man of faith could support them. However, we can, with good faith, support our traditional form of government against totalitarianism.

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