The following sobering essay first appeared in the Catholic weekly newspaper, The Wanderer. We are republishing it with their permission:
One Nation Under God No More
By James K. Fitzpatrick
I make an effort to keep up with what is being written by the journalists who focus on the difference in perspective between conservatives and liberals in the United States. For the most part, these columnists, even the best and the most interesting of them, bat around the same issues. There is nothing wrong with that. It is interesting and informative to get a wide array of angles on, for example the Keystone pipeline, President Obama’s handling of ISIS, and what Donald Trump’s candidacy means for the Republican Party.
Occasionally, however, I come across something that breaks new ground, a column that forces me to look at the world differently than before. Andrew J. Bacevich’s article In the August 14 issue of Commonweal did that for me. (Bacevich is a professor emeritus of history and international relations at Boston University.)
My problem is that I am not comfortable with Bacevich’s conclusions, but have found no way to find fault with them. Maybe some of our readers will have more luck.
Bacevich begins by pointing out that Americans have liked to think of ourselves as the “good guys.” We put “In God We Trust” on our coins, we recite the words “one nation under God” in the Pledge of Allegiance, we swear oaths upon the Bible.
Bacevich speaks for many when he recalls how “when I was a boy” in the 1950s, “on matters related to sex and family, a rough congruity existed between the prevailing American cultural norms and the traditional teachings of the Catholic Church.” When “it came to marriage, divorce, abortion, and sex out of wedlock – not to mention a shared antipathy for Communism – Washington and Rome may not have been in lockstep, but they marched pretty much to the same tune. As for homosexuality, well, it ranked among those subjects consigned to the category of unmentionables.”
It was an era when no one thought twice about the Ten Commandments being mounted on the courthouse wall and a Christmas crèche on the town library’s lawn, when Americans thought it entirely proper for Franklin Roosevelt and Winston Churchill to sing Onward Christian Soldiers while planning our strategy during World War II (which Gen. Eisenhower called our “Crusade in Europe” in his book of that name), when no one thought twice about the propriety of placing the American flag and the flag of the Vatican on either end of the altar in a Catholic church.
All this affected the way we saw ourselves in the world arena, says Bacevich: “Even if honored only in the breach, the prevailing code imparted legitimacy to the exercise of American power. In measured doses, self-restraint and self-denial offered indicators of collective moral fiber. By professing respect for God’s law, we positioned ourselves on his side.”
That has changed. There was a common denominator to the opinions of the Supreme Court justices who voted to legalize same-sex marriage in the case of Obergefell v. Hodges. Writes Bacevich, “The Justices who voted in favor of gay marriage don’t care a lick about whether the United States is ‘Under God’ or not.” They “have accurately gauged the signs of the times. The people of ‘thou shalt not’ have long since become the people of ‘whatever,’ with obligations deriving from moral tradition subordinated to claims of individual autonomy.” As “a force in American politics, religion is in retreat.” Those who interpret “the nation’s laws have dropped all pretense of deferring to guidance from above.”
Nature abhors a vacuum. There are foreign policy implications to the abandonment of traditional religious belief by the governing elites. They may no longer see themselves as acting “under God,” but that does not mean that they no longer see themselves as the champions of universal moral claims in the world arena. The elites have a new mission, new universal moral claims. Bacevich offers some examples. He points out that “gender equality” has now “found a place of the American political agenda. Now the State Department maintains an Office of Global Women’s Issues devoted to “empowering women politically, socially and economically around the world.”
Bacevich is waiting for the other shoe to drop. He contends that we “should anticipate something occurring in relation to LGBT communities worldwide. Their plight, which is real, will necessarily emerge as a matter of official U.S. concern. Today the United States condemns the racism, sexism, and anti-Semitism that Americans once found eminently tolerable. Tomorrow standing in principled opposition to anti-LGBT discrimination wherever it exists will become a moral imperative, Americans declaring themselves rid of sins they had committed just yesterday.”
Some, no doubt, will protest that Muslim societies are wrong to discriminate against women and homosexuals in the manner that they do, and that America is correct to pressure them to change. But that is a separate issue. The point just now is that, as Bacevich notes, “societies still viewing themselves as ‘under God’ will bridle at this sudden turnabout. Especially in the Islamic world, demands to conform to the latest revision of American (and therefore universal) freedom will strike many as not only unwelcome but also unholy encroachments.”
It is an irony of great proportions. From the time I was a student in the 1950s, the American left has prided itself on its opposition to the “ethnocentric presumptions” of the Western world. The left referred to the “ugly Americans” who moved about the world with the smug confidence that its “middle class mores” and narrow “Bible belt platitudes” bout how to organize a society were what was best for the developing world. We were called “jingoists” and close-minded for thinking that American values were I any way superior to those of the non-white populations of the planet.
Think of where we are now. It turns out that ethnocentric presumptions were objectionable to the liberal elites only when they reflected the traditional values of the Christian West. The secular left is proving more than willing to impose its ethnocentric presumptions about homosexuality, contraception, abortion and the rights of women upon societies whose religious beliefs are in opposition.
Bacevich: “[W]e are witnessing a remarkable inversion in the relationship between religion and American statecraft. Rather than facilitating the pursuit of America’s liberating mission, faith now becomes an impediment, an obstacle to freedom’s further advance. It’s no longer the godless who pose a problem, but the God-fearing with their stubborn refusal to accommodate truths that Americans have so recently discovered. Almost without anyone noticing, God himself has moved from our side to theirs.”
If that last sentence didn’t jar you, read it again.
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