The Vanishing United States

One of the great legacies of Union victory in the Civil War was the preservation of “these United States.” Historian Shelby Foote noted in the Ken Burns PBS documentary The Civil War, “Before the war, it was said, ‘the United States are…’. Grammatically, it was spoken that way and thought of as a collection of independent states. And after the war, it was always ‘the United States is…’, as we say today without being self-conscious at all. And that sums up what that war accomplished. It made us an ‘is’.”

In spite of the horrors of war, of brother against brother, unification would persevere—not without painful reconstruction and pervading differences between North and South, East and West that still permeates to some degree today. But such diversity has always been a welcomed trait of this nation. E pluribus unum—out of many, one.

What happened to “the United States”? The rhetoric is subtle, but its implications are troubling: rarely in speeches, slogans or everyday references does language evoke anymore “the United States of America,” but rather, simply, “America.” The reasons, generally speaking, are likely innocuous: “America” is less formal, it’s an expression of a land of ideals, of promise, and hope. In contrast, however, “United States” is perhaps too specific, too bureaucratic, too historical, perhaps something that conjures corruption and conspiracy, less of, by and for the people than the all-encompassing “America.”

Therein lies the problem. “America” becomes a vehicle for an agenda rather than a testament to a foundation built 240 years ago. Downplaying the United States of America in language usage suggests that “America” as a land of opportunity can be achieved without tradition or history. That “America’s future” envisions less a country unified out of many states than one that is homogenized towards one way of thinking, of living, of feeling—whatever that particular way of thought is from whoever is in a position of authority—that then becomes “America.”

It is no accident that the annual Fortnight for Freedom launched by the US bishops in 2012 concludes on July 4, Independence Day. In a time when displays of patriotism are deemed too quaint, too old-fashioned—too “Murica” as the millennial saying goes—this testimony to one of the defining rights of citizenship, the right to religious liberty, is intrinsically tied to the founding of the United States of America on the Fourth of July, 1776. At that time, fledgling colonies were embroiled in the War of Revolution they very well stood a chance of losing on the eastern coast of the sprawling North American continent. On the western coast at the same time, Franciscan friar Junipero Serra was on the cusp of founding his sixth and seventh Alta California missions, San Francisco de Asis in the north and San Juan Capistrano in the south. Both missions still stand today, as do the Thirteen Colonies, but no longer as property of Great Britain or under the banner of the Spanish crown, but as one whole—the United States of America.

Choosing “America” over “United States” may be just a rhetorical choice, but the stark division between two ideas of what this country should be is only too evident. What is the United States of America? As the country pivots further away from its patriotic heritage towards a new, ethically uncertain future, what will become of such concepts as patriotism and heritage, tradition, honor, duty, and loyalty?

Consider the widespread enlistment by the generation raised in the Great Depression who chose to join the fight against tyranny the day after the attack on Pearl Harbor to henceforth become the Greatest Generation. Are we as honor bound as those men and women were in 1941? Is family, community, and church places for deposits of faith or fading vestiges of a bygone era? To what would we give our lives for today? Do we still believe in men holding doors for women, in prayers before meals, in closed shops on Sundays, in flags flying instead of burning, in a unified society of elegant decorum, of people driven with purpose and direction for the betterment of the whole rather than ego and greed, joined together by common principles, common ethics, civil towards differences but without the animosity, hatred and vitriol too prevalent in today’s American streets? Essentially, are we willing to reclaim a sense of mission in the lives of citizen and country, as one indivisible nation under God?

These codes may not come by the will of politics, the country’s de facto secular religion. And they may not be shouted on rooftops by the vast majority who seek them again. But this yearning for a country so unique in world history, one with absolute, moral foundations anchoring her greatness and courage, likely lies deep within every beating American heart. As the United States struggles with its own identity and rediscovering again its narrative, as the digital landscape splinters interests and loyalties and cultural touchstones making it ever more difficult to form solidarity and connections with others, the obvious beacon for conversion is of course the Light of Life. But how to root such a secular society to such a pillar, a society not always tolerant of Catholic Christianity, whose kingdom is ultimately otherworldly?

Yet, such a relationship between church and state has preserved the practices of the faith because of guaranteed religious freedom. However, while that might have been true in the past, it may no longer be relevant to today’s “enlightened” society. This enlightened society of ours is clear-eyed, wherein reason and science are said to rule. Yet, it is a thinking that does not stand up to close scrutiny. Science only deals with the known universe, and reason can only go so far before it needs its logical complement to form true justice—faith. And by abandoning religious faith, many others have succumbed to scientism and irrational thinking. The Founding Fathers recognized an entire transcendent realm while crafting a very reasonable and rational new civilization, and even welcomed the transcendent, acknowledging it at the very birth of the United States—the Creator, God.

This country is vanishing along with the principles that formed it, developed it, and enhanced it, that made it the land of opportunity for the privileged and the hitherto vanquished, the immigrant and refugee seeking a new life for themselves and, more often than not, their own kin. A new state threatens to dominate, where a foreboding of something not being right is the order of the day, an increasingly unrecognizable landscape: fear. Fear of a country no longer a haven for diverse ideas, civil discourse, and ethnic communities with distinct flavor and customs, but of flattened and uniform normalcy determined by the ruling class, with consequences to pay for those who think or act otherwise.

The Christian knows this terrain too well. By nature of believing in Christ, the Christian is both citizen and foreigner in one’s own homeland.

“This is a part of our life,” Benedict XVI once observed just a few weeks before his retirement, “it is a form of being with the Crucified Christ; this being foreigners, not living in the way that everyone else lives, but living—or at least seeking to live—in accordance with his Word, very differently from what everyone says. And it is precisely this that is characteristic of Christians. They all say: ‘But everyone does this, why don’t I?’ No, I don’t, because I want to live in accordance with God.”

During this Fortnight for Freedom, redefining what these United States of America stands for is paramount, so that the future citizens who will inhabit its parks, schools, churches, and homes will know and believe the country stands for truth, not relativism, to freely hoist the Stars and Stripes, and without embarrassment proudly claim that this nation is still indivisible, still under God, and still professes real liberty and honest justice, for all.

James Day

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James Day's work has appeared in Crisis, Catholic World Report, and Catholic Exchange. He is the author of Father Benedict: The Spiritual and Intellectual Legacy of Pope Benedict XVI (2016, Sophia Institute Press).

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