‘Before there were houses in this land, there were altars.” A timelier reminder you could not get, as we confront realities about immigration and secularization in the United States. It’s a historical point that the Catholic archbishop of Los Angeles, José H. Gomez, makes as he tries to morally educate, animate, and challenge.
He urges an education in the whole story of America’s founding, starting with the back-story. The one where “Immigrant missionaries were naming this continent’s rivers and mountains and territories for saints, sacraments, and articles of the faith,” as Archbishop Gomez put it in a speech last summer to the Napa Institute, an organization that seeks to help Catholic leaders evangelize an increasingly secular world.
“Before the Boston Tea Party, Catholic missionaries were celebrating the holy Mass on the soil of this continent. Catholics founded America’s oldest settlement, in St. Augustine, Florida, in 1565,” he said, a point the archbishop, who was born in Mexico, frequently seeks to communicate. He is talking about the prequel, the story before the period Americans tend to think about around Thanksgiving, a story of “exploration and evangelization” that gave us names like Los Angeles and San José in Nueva España. Gomez quoted the 19th-century historian John Gilmary Shea: “Mass was said to hallow the land and draw down the blessing of heaven before the first step was taken to rear a human habitation. The altar was older than the hearth.” For some of these first evangelizers, America was “intended to be a place of encounter with the living Jesus Christ.”
He seems to be trying not to reclaim the U.S. for the descendants of early Spanish explorers but to remind us of the diversity of our past, toward an understanding of who we are today. “Although founded by Christians, America has become home to an amazing diversity of cultures, religions, and ways of life. This diversity flourishes precisely because our nation’s founders had a Christian vision of the human person, freedom, and truth,” Archbishop Gomez emphasizes.
“There is no denying significant differences between Hispanic-Catholic and Anglo-Protestant cultural assumptions,” Gomez acknowledges, while also making the case that we are a nation whose story is not complete without both. “When we forget our country’s roots in the Hispanic-Catholic mission to the new world, we end up with distorted ideas about our national identity. We end up with the idea that Americans are descended from only white Europeans and that our culture is based only on the individualism, work ethic, and rule of law that we inherited from our Anglo-Protestant forebears.”
This is important as a historical matter, as a civic matter, as a moral matter. It is essential as we insist on workable, responsible, humane federal immigration policy. But it has implications far beyond that one contentious issue.
“Our culture pushes us to ‘privatize’ our faith, to separate our faith from our life in society,” the archbishop said. “We always have to resist that temptation. We are called to live our faith in our businesses, homes, and communities, and in our participation in public life.” His remarks take on a renewed urgency in the wake of the reelection of a president whose Department of Justice has been arguing that individuals surrender their First Amendment religious-liberty protection when they make the choice to operate in the commercial marketplace. In cases where Catholic and Protestant business owners are suing President Obama’s Department of Health and Human Services over its abortion-drug, contraception, and sterilization employer mandate, the administration is arguing in federal courts that these employers have no religious-liberty claim, that they do not have the freedom to run their businesses in a way that is faithful to who they are. This puts small-business owners across the country in an unprecedented position, forcing them to ask federal courts for protection from this new understanding of religious liberty, one defined by regulatory powers Congress granted bureaucrats in President Obama’s health-care law, a law fundamentally hostile to conscience.
The archbishop’s reflections on our history take on added significance when put beside some of the quotes from leading Democrats who profess to be Catholic but who, at their national convention in Charlotte and elsewhere, insist that one can believe an unborn child is deserving of protection as a matter of faith and yet cast that child aside as a matter of public policy. One convention speaker even made the case that it was because of her Catholic faith that she is an advocate of legal and increased abortion access.
Perhaps we can all start our remedial civic-education work with a reflection on the definition of “authenticity.”
And authenticity for Americans is shared across denominations and outside of faith. “Every American should know these characters and the ideals and principles they fought for,” Archbishop Gomez said, in what has become a familiar scene — religious leaders reminding us of who we are as a people, as they have tried to make clear to us why our religious liberty is a precious gift we are obligated to protect. (Neither the United States nor its Catholic bishops are in retreat as we approach 2013.) “From this story we learn that our American identity and culture are rooted in essentially Christian beliefs about the dignity of the human person,” Gomez said.
Or, as G. K. Chesterton put it, “America is the only nation in the world that is founded on a creed.”
An election can unite and it can divide. It can be cause for celebration or it can teach the wrong lessons. It can prompt renewal, even as some of us find ourselves on a bit of a penitential walk that has to do with much more than one election.
Timothy Cardinal Dolan quoted Chesterton in his speech as president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops at their fall meeting in Baltimore the week after the election. Repeating Chesterton’s question, “What’s wrong with the world?” he went on to say that the answer isn’t any of the things we might be tempted to name — a political party, an institution, or even pervasive secularism. The answer, Cardinal Dolan reminded his brother bishops, is: “I am.” We are, after all, those who make up parties and institutions. We are responsible.
At a time when all too many Americans have forgotten what roots us and holds us together as a people, it just doesn’t get more timely. Whoever is president, our hopes and dreams run deeper than any political party, and knowing our history might help us move forward, together, as better stewards of our blessings.
— Kathryn Jean Lopez is editor-at-large of National Review Online. This column is available exclusively through Andrews McMeel Universal’s Newspaper Enterprise Association.