Politics and Patriotism

james gibbons

These are challenging times for the Christian patriot, as evidenced by controversies over recent renditions of the Religious Freedom Restoration Acts. The mere fact that these State legislative attempts to restore religious freedom are even necessary speaks volumes. For example, the First Amendment mandates that the “Congress shall make no law respecting the establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” If the Supreme Court were to be consistent with its incorporation doctrine, neither national nor State laws that violate the free exercise of religion would pass constitutional muster. If one were free to exercise his religion, any law that infringes on that fundamental right would be declared unconstitutional and the butcher, the baker, the candlestick maker would not be compelled conduct their businesses in any manner they deem to violate their Christian principles.

Unfortunately, that’s not the America the Christian finds himself living in today. So much so that any thoughtful Christian patriot must regularly find himself in the position of reassessing his patriotic duty to his State and national governments. Government, rather than protecting the free exercise of his religion, is increasingly hostile towards the free exercise of the Christian faith. That hostility stems from a long-term government sanctioned evisceration of the Christian basis of American civilization. This is not hyperbole. Christians subjected to criminal and civil penalties for refusing to partake in what they deem to be sinful activities is becoming the norm.

Imagine this scenario. My faith informs me that abortion is murder. My taxes are funding abortion. I refuse to pay taxes on the basis that I refuse to be a party, however minuscule, to murder. The outcome would the loss of my property and inevitably my liberty.

The operative question is, should the Christian maintain his patriotic posture towards a government, or governments, not only failing in its constitutional duty to protect the free exercise of his religion, but proactive in undermining his religion? His Eminence James Cardinal Gibbons, a Southerner by birth and disposition, provides some useful insights to help answer this question.

Cardinal Gibbons was born in Baltimore on July 23, 1834, and died on March 24, 1921. At the age of three Gibbons’ father returned with his family to Ireland. After the death of her husband in 1847, Mrs. Gibbons and family returned to Baltimore in 1853. James most certainly benefitted from his years in Ireland, a Roman Catholic country under the yoke of English hostility and persecution. As an Irish Catholic refugee, James witnessed firsthand anti-Irish sentiment, but nevertheless adopted his new country with enthusiasm and optimism. He embraced his adopted country with patriotic fervor, but not blindly. His love for America stemmed from its exceptionalism, i.e., government was based upon the consent of the governed and protected fundamental rights such as the free exercise of religion. Moreover, his patriotism was conditional and predicated on its compatibility with Christianity. That view was articulated in an 1892 essay he wrote for The North American Review titled “Patriotism and Its Politics”. It is through the lens of that essay that clarification of present day Christian patriots’ dilemma will be considered.

Cardinal Gibbons was prominent in the Americanization of the Catholic Church movement, meaning more independence from Rome and the liberalization of American Catholic churches. His support for Progressives/Socialist such as Henry George makes clear his political orientation. Although theologically and politically Cardinal Gibbons was a man of the 19th Century Left, he opposed the deification of the nation as an affront to man’s personal dignity. Deification of the nation, according to Gibbons, is a pagan principle and anti-Christian.

For Christians to be patriotic towards a government hostile to Christianity was tantamount to dethroning God and placing the nation in His place. One must choose whether he is to be a pagan or Christian patriotic. They are mutually exclusive; acting in the capacity of the former while pretending to be the latter requires the suspension of logic, which goes a long way in understanding how a onetime Christian nation morphed into a pagan one.

Back to Cardinal Gibbons. He was influenced by the Catholic principle of subsidiarity, which is consistent with America’s founding principles, such as government being grounded in the consent of the governed. As pointed out by David A. Bosnich, the principle of subsidiarity “holds that nothing should be done by a larger and more complex organization which can be done as well by a smaller and simpler organization. In other words, any activity which can be performed by a more decentralized entity should be. This principle is a bulwark of limited government and personal freedom. It conflicts with the passion for centralization and bureaucracy characteristic of the Welfare State.”[i]

Cardinal Gibbons’ nationalism is consistent with the principle of subsidiarity. He wrote,

. . . in the political order, the United States offers a miniature picture of the brotherly federation of nations—forty-four sovereign States, sovereign and independent as to their internal existence, yet presenting to the rest of the world a national unity in the federal government.[ii]

Religion belongs in the realm of the “internal existence” of the States, which is embedded in the 10th Amendment reserved powers. The States’ reserved powers were to promote the “health, safety, and morals” of their respective peoples. Those “morals” were grounded in Christianity, the prevailing religion of the 18th Century.

Americans understood and accepted this for most of the nation’s history. They also understood and accepted that government was constrained accordingly. Citing Jesus’ response to the Herodians questioning about paying tribute to Caesar, i.e., “Render to Caesar things which are Caesar’s, and to God the things which are God’s,” Cardinal Gibbons was alerting the Christian that his patriotism has limits. As Roman subjects Jews had certain obligations, but those obligations had limits. Imagine Jesus replying to the Herodians, “Do what Caesar demands.” Rather, Jesus instructs us not to render to Caesar those things that offend God.

Consequently, “every man in the Commonwealth leads a dual life,–a private life under the shadow of the home, and a public life under the aegis of the State.” The patriot loves his country, which includes the soil where his ancestors sleep and where he was born, and “the men who live thereon.” Patriotism is a “rational instinct placed by the Creator in the breast of man. When God made man a social being, He gave him a sentiment that urges him to sacrifice himself for his family and his country, which is, as it were, his larger family. Dear are ancestors, dear are children, dear are relatives and friends; all these are contained in love of country.”[iii]

It may be difficult for contemporary Americans to grasp the civic implications of this 19th Century axiom. If the 19th Century Christian patriot loves his ancestors, children, relatives and friends, he would not stand idle while government facilitated their damnation. Consequently, patriotism, i.e., love of country, is not synonymous with love of government.

In the event of a conflict between the two, how is the Christian to respond? This is not an especially difficult question. Cardinal Gibbons acknowledges that in the abstract, government stems from divine authority,[iv] but for government’s laws to be legitimate they must meet with divine sanction.[v] In other words, the Christian patriot is obliged to obey legitimate laws but not illegitimate ones. Christianity has altered the meaning of patriotism; it is a different type of patriotism from that in pagan and non-Christian societies. He maintained that Christian patriotism “is elevated, ennobled, and perfected by the religion of Christ. . . . Christianity has given to patriotism and to the sacrifices it demands, nobler motives and higher ideals.”[vi]

Because Cardinal Gibbons’ view of patriotism was not deification of government and/or the state, which is a pagan notion, the Christian patriot may find in his government an enemy. To be at peace with his government, it must act as a divine instrument that defers to the citizens’ personal dignity and secures to citizens “the greater facility for pursuing and attaining their end in life [salvation]. That is the Christian notion of the State, and the American also, as laid down in the Declaration of Independence.”[vii]

It is essential to note that Cardinal Gibbons was not advocating for a theocracy. He understood that as a Roman Catholic that Catholics would come out on the short end of a theocratic America, and America predominantly Protestant. To the contrary. He was advocating for government not to be an instrument of hostility towards religion, but nevertheless supportive of Christian values shared by Americans.

In Christian America, one in which citizens have a properly Christian formed Christian conscience, government officials are to the citizen “representatives of God.” The Christian citizen will know, by appealing to his Christian conscience, if a law, or for that matter government, is legitimate by considering whether or not it operates under “divine sanction.”[viii]

Cardinal Gibbons reminds us that even the Apostles and primitive Christians “were conscientious in observing the laws of the Roman Empire, which often inflicted on them odious pains and disabilities.”[ix] But those early Christians were not Roman patriots per se, to the extent that they would compromise their religious convictions, as evidenced by their persecution and martyrdom.

Cardinal Gibbons notes that Americans are blessed with a system of government “in which the people are ruled by representatives of their own choice, and for the benefit of the people themselves. Our rulers are called the servants of the people . . . and the people are called the sovereign people, because it is by their voice that their rulers are elected.” He admonishes us that it “is the sacred duty for every American to do all in his power to perpetuate our civil institutions and to avert the dangers that threaten them.”[x] This is the Christian patriot’s duty, to love his country and to support government to the extent that it does not present a danger.

Drawing from the lessons of the Roman Republic, he acknowledged that the American civil institutions are in danger. Like the Roman Republic, avarice and ambition pose substantial threats. “The avarice of the poor was gratified by the bribery of the rich; the ambition of the rich was fed by the votes of the poor.” Consequently, the American Republic, “while retaining its form, may degenerate into the most odious tyranny.”[xi] Unless Christian patriots stand at the ready to fulfill their sacred duty, the American Republic will go the way of the Roman, because it is not immune from the political corruption and disaster that befell the Roman Republic.[xii]

According to Cardinal Gibbons, the signs to be watchful of include, corruption of the ballot-box, a politicized judiciary, a non-vigilant and fearful press, an incompetent school system, the loss of historic memory, immigrants who are strangers to our civil institutions and outside our political faith, the absence of opposing principled political parties, and most importantly what we today refer to as crony capitalism:

when the very fountains of legislation are polluted by lobbying and other corrupt means; when the hand of bribery is extended, and not always in vain, to our municipal, state, and national legislators; when our lawmakers become the pliant tools of some selfish and greedy capitalists, instead of subserving the interests of the people,–then, indeed all patriotic citizens have reason to be alarmed about the future of our country.[xiii]

When Cardinal Gibbons made these observations in the last decade of the 19th Century, he was writing in a different America. He was guardedly optimistic, because he mistakenly believed that Americans were “liberty-loving” and understood that “eternal vigilance is the price of liberty.” He anticipated that patriots would “rise to the occasion  . . . and will never suffer the stately temple of the Constitution to be overthrown, but will hasten to strengthen the foundation where it is undermined, to repair every breach, and to readjust every stone of the glorious edifice.”[xiv]

His 19th Century optimism notwithstanding, he does provide the patriot with a remedy for the present. Treat the corrupt lawmaker as a “human monster, and enemy of society, and no punishment would be too severe for him.”[xv] The failure to do so has consequences, because man “is answerable to God for his political, as well as his personal, life.”[xvi] Once the “answerable to God” link between the political and personal is broken, the former will eventually cease to be informed by Christian precepts, such as endowed by the Creator of certain unalienable rights.

In closing, it is essential to distinguish patriotism from nationalism. Catholic philosopher Dietrich von Hildebrand, in the early phases of his battle against Nazism, provides us with some useful insights. He wrote that “[N]ationalists never see the true values of their nation, its cultural nobility, or the deeper significance of its national genius. All they see is its power, its gloire, its political influence. The decisive point, which makes the nationalist’s breast swell with pride, is not the sublimity of his culture, but the number of square kilometers in his country and the size of its army.”[xvii]

The Christians should contemplate the relevance of Hildebrand’s words the next time their “breast swells” at the sight of the American flag or makes the pledge of allegiance to that flag. To the extent that the flag represents a government not at war with his faith and human dignity, it is due respect, but only to that extent. Unfortunately, many Americans fail to realize that the flag’s origins can be traced back to early Christian Americans. It is doubtful that those Americans would pledge allegiance to today’s flag, realizing that to do so would dishonor the sacrifices of the men and women that made and sustained it. Their allegiance was to the Cross first and foremost, and to flag as embodying that ultimate sacrifice.

As explained by Hildebrand,

The nationalist’s love is not a greater love, but an inferior and impure love. Fundamentally, it is not love at all: it is self-assertion, the will to power, the drive for prestige, and self-glorification. No amount of sacrifices made on behalf of the nation in time of war can in any way change this. The nationalist is incapable of genuine love, for love of a good is always genuine to the extent that it participates in the love with which God loves it.[xviii]

Cardinal Gibbons and Hildebrand are in agreement that the Christian patriot’s focus must ultimately be on eternity. The manner and extent to which any government, national, state, or local, diverts him and his fellow citizens from this focus should shape his politics and his patriotism.

Of course, these reflections are certain to be simplistically criticized as non-inclusive of atheists, agnostics, non-Christians, etc. However, therein lies the Christian patriot’s dilemma. A choice needs to be made, and the sooner the better. Is the Christian basis of American civilization worth recovering, or should Christian patriots stand idle while the trajectory of developments is sure to make American Christians increasingly persona non grata in these United States and perhaps the Kingdom to come?

[i] David A. Bosnich, “The Principle of Subsidiarity,” Religion & Liberty, vol. 6, no. 4, last accessed on April 4, 2015, http://www.acton.org/pub/religion-liberty/volume-6-number-4/principle-subsidiarity.

[ii] Gibbons, His Eminence Cardinal, “Patriotism and Its Politics,” The North American Review, vol. 154, issue 425 (April 1892), 392.

[iii] Ibid., 387.

[iv] John 19:11; cf. Romans 13:1,4,7.

[v] Gibbons, 391.

[vi] Gibbons, 390.

[vii] Ibid., 391-392.

[viii] Ibid., 391.

[ix] Id., 391.

[x] Id., 392.

[xi] Id., 393.

[xii] Id., 394.

[xiii] Id., 395.

[xiv] Id., 397.

[xv] Id., 395.

[xvi] Id., 397.

[xvii] Dietrich Von Hildebrand, My Battle Against Hitler: Faith, Truth, and Defiance in the Shadow of the Third Reich, translated and edited by John Henry Crosby with John F. Crosby (Random House, New York, NY: 2014), 251.

[xviii] Ibid., 251.

About Marshall DeRosa

Marshall DeRosa received his Ph.D. and M.A. from the University of Houston and his B. A. from West Virginia University, Magna Cum Laude. He has taught at Davis and Elkins College (1985-1988), Louisiana State University (1988-1990), and Florida Atlantic University (1990-Present). He is a Salvatori Fellow with the Heritage Foundation and full professor in the Department of Political Science. He has published articles and reviews in professional journals, book chapters, and three books. He resides in Wellington, FL, with his wife and four children. More from Marshall DeRosa

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