As America celebrated its 4th of July with Trump’s salute to America, many pundits have signaled that the patriotism displayed was too over the top. Is patriotism a form of nation worship? Let’s go to one of the Doctors of the Church for this question. St. Thomas Aquinas addresses the topic of patriotism when he analyzed if piety given to country takes away from piety given to God (S.T. II-II q101).
Aquinas is pro-patriotism as he places honoring your country in line with the 4th commandment to honor thy father and mother. What Aquinas is doing is putting patriotism under the virtue of justice. Justice is giving what is owed to another. For example, you owe your employer hard work for paying you well. You owe your spouse fidelity. You owe your parents honor for raising you. You owe God worship for creating you. So, in justice there is a built in mechanism to give back to others what they’ve provided you.
As Aquinas states, “The principles of our being and government are our parents and our country, that have given us birth and nourishment. Consequently man is debtor chiefly to his parents and his country, after God. Wherefore just as it belongs to religion to give worship to God, so does it belong to piety, in the second place, to give worship to one’s parents and one’s country.”
The reason Aquinas links a person’s home country to their father or mother is because the home country is necessarily rooted in the family lineage of that person. The word “patriotism” stems from the Latin word “patria” which means fatherland or native land. Biblically speaking, the nations outlined in the Old Testament all traced their origins back to a specific family. Recall, that the nation of Israel came from Jacob’s 12 sons. In Ireland, if you can trace your family name back to the early clans, you’ll likely have discovered that these were the people who helped form the country. This is why you’ll often hear people refer to their country of origin as their motherland or fatherland. In short, the country you live in links you towards the family you came from.
As Aquinas states, “The worship due to our parents includes the worship given to all our kindred, since our kinsfolk are those who descend from the same parents. The worship given to our country includes homage to all our fellow-citizens and to all the friends of our country. Therefore piety extends chiefly to these.”
Aquinas places honoring your country as a virtue and to violate would be a vice. Just like our parents give us the gift of our existence, food, shelter, family, faith – all come in some ways by means of the land and our society with citizens of our country. Therefore, we honor our parents and country precisely because they point us to God.
Where patriotism ceases to exist is when rather than the country points to God, the country is itself worshiped as a god. The Roman empire did not worship God, they worshiped Caesar and forced its citizens to do such. Countries that deny God or force one to rebuke God won’t receive honor. This is why Catholicism doesn’t give any reverence or respect to atheistic Communist regimes such as Stalin’s Russia, Hitler’s Germany, Mao’s China, and Pol Pot’s Cambodia (despite Pope Francis’s China deal).
Socialist dictators tried to create a human utopia on earth. One that Karl Marx said needs to be “free from the shackles of religion.” Because socialist regimes forced people to give up religion, they then demanded their country to be worshiped as a type of religion. Once God is removed, the State then replaces God as the ruling entity to be adored. It is no wonder that Hitler and Stalin stamped their pictures all over the public sphere – they wanted their people to know who to worship. As the common salute in Nazi Germany proclaimed, “Heil Hitler!” So, in the Socialist setting, the politician was god and the real God was to be stripped away along with all the churches that accompany God.
When it comes to America, our very founding reflects a large pointing finger towards God and not towards a political figure. As American currency has always declared, “In God We Trust.” In other words, the American governing body understands that ultimate ruling power and authority does not come from the government, but from God. Under this context, loving our country does not mean we worship our country any more than honoring your parents doesn’t mean you worship them. We love and honor our country and parents precisely because they’ve created the environment in which our faith and freedom can flourish.
While America’s founders were mainly Protestant, the ideals of America are actually more Catholic than we typically think. In his book, Catholic Republic, Timothy Gordon gives a convincing argument that the principles outlined in the American founders are deeply Catholic. That is, the founding fathers, whether they know it or not, were drawing off Catholic themes echoed by St. Thomas Aquinas.
In the opening lines of the Declaration of Independence, the founders specifically indicate their intentions are derived from God. “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”
This famous line in the Declaration is drenched with Catholic motifs.
First, the fact that these fundamental truths are “self-evident” and the rights are “unalienable” evokes the Catholic concept of natural law. Natural law says that nature is intelligible and encompasses a profound message in it that we can understand using our reason. Nature is intelligible because it comes from a grand intelligence, namely, God. Protestants generally don’t accept natural law theology because as John Calvin opined, creation suffers from “total depravity.” Calvin, along with Martin Luther, later wrote, “as man is enclosed by the darkness of error, natural law gives him scarce an inkling of the kind of service which is pleasing to God” (see Bondage of the Will by Martin Luther). Therefore, under the Protestant view, man is incapable of using reason to extract anything good out of nature whereas Aquinas famously declared man can use his intellect as “grace perfects nature.” Man’s intellect in creation tells us more about the Creator. That is, nature acts as a sign of communication from God to us.
If something is “self-evident” it communicates within its very nature of what that thing is and what can be known about it. Paul talks about God’s very existence as being self-evident as well. “For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them. Ever since the creation of the world his invisible nature, namely, his eternal power and deity has been clearly perceived in the things that have been made” (Romans 1: 19-20). Here, Paul is articulating natural law in that the design of the world itself demonstrates God’s existence. This communication comes from itself; it comes from its essence, its nature. Paul also outlines that morality comes from natural law – “They show that the work of the law is written on their hearts, while their conscience also bears witness, and their conflicting thoughts accuse or even excuse them” (Romans 2:15).
In fact, George Mason called the basic rights outlined in the Declaration as natural rights. Natural rights can only come from natural law and natural law is emphatically Catholic.
The second phrase that outlines the Biblical theme within the Declaration is “all men are created equal.” Today, the word equal has caused much confusion. Julia Shaw writes how the definition of “equality” in the Declaration is not the same as the pop culture’s understanding of the word “equality.” Being created equal does not mean being created to have the exact same outcome. Obviously, nature communicates that people are created physically and mentally different from one another. Rather, equality, under the context of natural rights, indicates that all people have the same value. Therefore, all human beings, regardless of their physical distinctions (sex, skin color, hair color, etc.) and internal beliefs (religious or political views) posses the same value and have access to these fundamental rights. The founders’s concept that all human beings having the same intrinsic importance is drawing off the Biblical theme in which all of mankind was created in God’s very image (see Genesis 1:27). The founders then attach the source of this basic rights as “endowed by their Creator.” If all men are created in God’s image than all men hold the same value. Thus, no one, no matter how smart a person might be, no one has the right to rule over another person without their consent (this assertion set the stage for abolishing slavery).
It is important to note that equality in natural law has nothing to do with producing the same results. Politicians often speak about income inequality in that people have different outcomes economically, socially, etc. These claims are misguided and simply try to get the masses in an emotional frenzy in which they can conveniently place blame on an outside source for their own perceived shortfalls. Given that people are different in many areas, the outcome of all people will never be the same. Some will succeed along the way and some will fail along the way. What the founders wanted to do is to create a path in which everyone has access to the same natural rights (life, liberty, property). In fact, we naturally crave an unequal outcome. Would you pay money to watch sports games in which every outcome ended in a tie? Therefore, the inequalities (different outcomes) that persist are a natural by-product of the diversity we display.
Some people are better at computer programming while some are better at plumbing, teaching, or administration work. The point in natural rights of equality is to not think a lawyer that makes $300,000 a year has more value than a day care teacher that makes $30,000 a year. Or, that a baby in the womb has less value than a woman who doesn’t want to be pregnant. As the founders articulate, we may have unequal outcomes (which is normal), but we hold the same value as we all come from the same divine source – God. Therefore, our founding fathers had the wisdom to declare that a person’s worth doesn’t come from how attractive they are, how much money they make, or from where they live. Rather, a person’s value comes from being created in the image of God – which is something all people share.
The third example of the Christian assumption within the Declaration is how the founders defined what our rights are – life, liberty, property, (and the pursuit of happiness). All three have a Catholic coating on them.
The right to life is a fundamental Catholic teaching. This is why the Church continuously teaches and promotes the pro-life movement. In fact, Pope Benedict XVI indicated that you can’t be Catholic and hold pro-abortion views. To be Catholic and be pro-abortion would be a contradiction – akin to saying that you are a married-bachelor.
The right to liberty is synonymous with the Catholic idea of the right to freedom. Liberty is defined as having the free will to choose to do the good the way you best understand based on natural law. The pop culture has twisted liberty with the term license (i.e. entitlement). License is you have the ability to do anything without reference to the end good of the act (e.g., I am free to have an abortion). However, the founders’ “freedom” is not the pop culture’s shallow concept to be able to do whatever you want to do. Aquinas (along with Plato) taught that freedom is the ability to choose to live how you were designed to live. A person isn’t free when they allow their flawed desires to govern them to do whatever they want. They are, in fact, a slave of their desires in which their desires force them to do things their conscience wants to reject. For example, an alcoholic doesn’t want to drink, but his cravings control him to. He cannot freely choose the good to abstain from drinking. So, he is not free in this setting. Under the Catholic view, we are truly free when we do what we ought to do, not merely what we want to do (cf. 1 Peter 2:15-17). Therefore, a person is free when they choose to live how they were designed by God to live much like a fish is free when the fish lives in the water rather than outside the water.
The founders assertion of the “right to pursue happiness” doesn’t merely reflect go and have fun. Rather, it’s regarding the right to pursue that which makes one fulfilled. If we are honest, we know only God can do this (see here). As St. Augustine wrote, “Our hearts are restless until they rest in thy, oh God. Happiness does not come from the self or from the culture. As Augustine shows, only God can provide a person with lasting happiness.
To be sure, the phrase “right to pursue happiness” can be interpreted vaguely by flawed humanity so people can do just about anything that makes them temporarily happy. Therefore, the founders wisely redefined these natural rights in the 14th amendment to: life, liberty, and property.
The right to property is another Catholic staple. Thomas Aquinas regarded self-reliance and private property ownership as vital to mankind as it allows man to become free from state rule. If private ownership is revoked then we witness how the borrower becomes a slave to the lender (see Proverbs 22:7). As Aquinas stated, “It is lawful for a man to hold private property and it is also necessary for the carrying on of human existence” (S.T. II-II Q66 A8). Years later Pope Leo XIII echoed Aquinas when he wrote, “Private ownership, as we have seen, is the natural right of man, and to exercise that right, especially as members of society, is not only lawful, but absolutely necessary.”
So, we can see that these natural rights that America was founded on originated from Catholic soil. Interestingly, as Father Robert Spitzer shows, Thomas Jefferson likely borrowed the short list of natural rights from a Jesuit named Francisco Suarez. Decades before 1776, Suarez outlined these natural rights in his treatise entitled On the Law. Suarez, no doubt was, in turn, reflecting on Aquinas’ writings in the Summa Theologica.
Sadly, as America becomes increasingly secular and progressive these natural rights have become subverted and flipped on its head. The right to life has been taken away by abortion. Today, the most innocent person, a small, fragile human being does not have the right to life. Rather, the baby’s right to life is trumped by the mother’s right to “choose.” Even if a person is born, but experiences suffering or medical trials down the road, now euthanasia is a form of mercy killing that can overturn this right to life.
The right of liberty (i.e. freedom) is now the right to do whatever one wants to do where the person plays the role of god and can define things that he or she didn’t create. If you doubt this just read the brief of Justice Kennedy in the 1992 Planned Parenthood v. Casey case in which he stated, “At the heart of liberty is to define one’s own concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe, and of the mystery of human life.” So, instead of the founder’s declaration that liberty comes from the Creator, Kennedy now insists that liberty comes from the self.
The right to property is being stripped away as the government can take your property, your goods for other use (see Kelo v. City of New London). Moreover, the popular socialist idea of income redistribution denies your right to property and seeks to take people’s earned goods and distribute out as the government deems fit. Indeed, people now think they have a right to property that is not their own. According to Pope Leo XIII, the notion that we need to take goods away from people is actually envy, greed, and theft masquerading around as a supposed “right.” Thomas Aquinas outlined how a government that overtaxes its citizens becomes a thief. “To take other people’s property violently and against justice, in the exercise of public authority, is to act unlawfully and be guilty of robbery” (S.T. II-II Q66 A8).
Under natural law, taxing of goods must be done with just proportions. As Timothy Gordon explains, “Any system of taxation that does not have enact a simple equality of proportionality (e.g., flat tax) requires too much tax revenue from some and too little from others. And this has the same effect as transferring property from a deserving to an undeserving owner.”
Natural law asserts that distribution of goods (either taking or giving them) needs to be done according to capability. As Aristotle wrote, “Awards should be according to merit: for all men agree that what is just is in distribution must be according to merit.”
In fact, these very ideas mentioned above come from the Biblical concept that we are given rewards based on what we produce.”To one he gave five talents, to another two, to another one, to each according to his ability. (Matthew 25: 15, cf Galatians 6:7-9). However, instead of the Biblical concept of you “reap what you sow,” the modern view is that others selfishly “take what you sow.”
The problem now surfaces as we see these fundamental rights we acknowledged in the 18th century is actively being gutted by progressive principles. This descent from Catholic ideas in the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution to now a subversion is summed up by Timothy Gordon’s statement that “America is wired Catholic, labeled Protestant and currently functioning secular.”
We’ve drifted so far back from the principles of our founding that the average American today would be shocked to hear that he only has three natural rights. His very surprise is a symptom of the problem. Imagine adding to modern man’s astonishment when he learns that for two of these rights, he actually has to do something to receive the right. He can’t just demand the right to have the liberty to do X unless he can intelligently explain why doing X is a noble thing. And before people have the right to property they have to go out to work and earn it. Having rights doesn’t mean a person can do (or not do) anything he or she wants. Indeed, Aquinas outlines how rights have a built in obligation of duties for both parties.
Therefore, not only has the government taken away our three natural rights, but to add extra meat to the problem, more phantom “rights” were granted – like our “right” to free contraceptives or the “right” to free college. We now believe we have dozens of natural rights. We do not. We have three primary rights. Everything else we have to earn. Now, there are other rights amended in the Bill of Rights, but these supplemental rights flow from the three natural rights. For example, the right to free speech emerges from the right to liberty. However, these secondary rights have built in restrictions in them. With free speech, you can’t yell fire in a crowded building if there is none. You can’t express your free speech while dancing nude in the middle of a road or in someone’s property. Therefore, the founder’s had the wisdom to know that flawed humanity would run amok if rights went beyond the three primary civic rights that Francisco Suarez wrote about.
All of our ideas have an ultimate source on where they originate from. We can identify this source as simply either God or the self. Which source does a country acknowledge as the correct one? When it comes to how we think as a country, we identify if a person is conservative because they are conserving the natural rights outlined in the Constitution. A person is liberal because they want to liberate (break free from) and fundamentally change the meaning of the rights in the Constitution. It is no coincidence that from one’s political views of conservative or liberal, one’s theology follows suit (see here). I’ve never heard of a Catholic that had a liberal view of the Constitution but had a conservative view of the Church. You eventually become one or the other in both spheres because both areas address the source of our fundamental rights of what it means to be a human person.
Let’s look back at the original documents to see how Catholic they are. For this reason, we can be proud to be an American and hope that we can pay more attention to the spirit of 1776.