The American proposition is a theological proposition: “that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights.”
Just how radical that idea is is difficult for the 21st-century Western mind to comprehend. For the entirety of the human experience, most men had been subjects — the ruled living their lives at the sufferance of rulers. The American proposition inverts that: We are citizens, not subjects, and government exists at our sufferance, not the other way around. Americans first applied to politics the Christian belief that we are made in the likeness of Almighty God Himself, not in the likeness of livestock to be herded, milked, and slaughtered.
RELATED: The Vision of the Founding Fathers
Americans’ religiosity compared with that of our European cousins perplexes and vexes those who do not understand that our civil religion is rooted in our religion-religion, that we have, for instance, a constitutional prohibition on the establishment of a national church because our founders were in the main sundry fractious irreconcilable believers rather than jaded agnostics. We have freedom of religion because our forefathers were Puritan fanatics, not in spite of the fact. Consider the mind of Thomas Paine: Even our anti-ecclesiasticals are evangelical. Paine’s character dominates that of the modern American atheist, who burns with a holy fervor unknown to the milquetoast Sunday-morning Christian.
Ultimately, we Americans are not a blood; we are a creed.
SLIDESHOW: What Is Freedom?
The apex and culmination of the Christian understanding of the world is grace, the overflowing supernatural goodness that we receive without earning it or deserving it. It is freely given, but it is not free: A heavy price has been paid. For Saint John Paul the Great, grace is inextricably linked to human liberty: He wrote of the “inseparable connection between the Lord’s grace and human freedom” and described grace as that “which enables us to possess the full freedom of the children of God.” (Pope John Paul II often sounded as if he were the most Anglo-Protestant Polish Catholic who ever lived.) He considers the case of the rich young man advised by Jesus to sell all of his possessions “and come and follow me.” Saint John Paul writes: “The young man, having observed all the commandments, shows that he is incapable of taking the next step by himself alone. To do so requires mature human freedom and God’s gift of grace.”
The apex and culmination of the American political understanding of the world is liberty. It is freely received, but it is not free: A heavy price has been paid, and continues to be paid.
The apex and culmination of the American political understanding of the world is liberty, that necessary precondition of the “mature human freedom” that Saint John Paul insisted upon. It is freely received, but it is not free: A heavy price has been paid, and continues to be paid. Matthew’s Gospel speaks of a city on a hill, an image that captured the imagination of Ronald Reagan: “I’ve spoken of the shining city all my political life, but I don’t know if I ever quite communicated what I saw when I said it. But in my mind it was a tall proud city built on rocks stronger than oceans, wind-swept, God-blessed, and teeming with people of all kinds living in harmony and peace, a city with free ports that hummed with commerce and creativity. And if there had to be city walls, the walls had doors and the doors were open to anyone with the will and the heart to get here.” T. S. Eliot wondered about that city on the hill: “When the Stranger says: ‘What is the meaning of this city? Do you huddle close together because you love each other?’ What will you answer? ‘We all dwell together to make money from each other’? or ‘This is a community’?”
President Reagan had an answer for him: “If we love our country, we should also love our countrymen.”
Most of us know the story of John Newton, the English slaver who, after his conversion to Christianity, became an abolitionist, who rejoiced in living to see Britain’s abolition of the African slave trade and who left posterity with the hymn “Amazing Grace.” The hymn speaks in wonder that mercy should be extended even to “a wretch like me,” in Newton’s case a man who had, for a time, earned his own bread trafficking in human beings. That Newton’s great hymn is something like an alternative national anthem for religious Americans — not Christians alone — is appropriate. Like Newton, America came up from bondage, liberating ourselves as we liberated the slaves.
Through many dangers, toils, and snares
I have already come;
’tis grace hath brought me safe thus far,
and grace will lead me home.
To be an American is to know a blessing that none of us has earned or merited, to have liberty not because we deserve it but because of who we are — endowed by the Creator with certain unalienable rights. None of us has earned that liberty, but we do have the opportunity — and it is precious — to live up to it. The Union army once had the courage and the confidence to march singing “Glory! Glory! Hallelujah!” Those men were facing a national crisis and physical horrors worse than anything our generation has known, or is likely to know. They endured: We have now seen 239 years of liberty and prosperity unprecedented in all of human history, a longer span of time than that which separated the Year of the Six Emperors from the fall of the Roman empire.
Call it the historical version of a lucky break?
No. Call it amazing grace. Glory, glory, hallelujah.