A July 4 Message for the Next Generation: What Was ‘America’?
This column originally appeared July 2, 2020. We are republishing it to mark Independence Day, 2021.
Welcome to our time capsule, Forbidden Knowledge. We’re writing this compendium of political, historical, and philosophical wisdom in the vexed year 2020, AD. At least, that’s the calendar still used as we pen these words. We hope, of course, that it still will be when you pick up this book, in some ten or twenty years. But at this point, we cannot be sure. Perhaps it will be the Year of the Revolution (YR) 15 or something. History will have hit “reset” with the burning of Manhattan, the Vatican or the Library of Congress.
We hope that you may purchase this book legally, since you live in a society that still welcomes free inquiry and open debate. One that still learns from its past, and recognizes the value of honoring our fathers and mothers. But it would be reckless for us to assume that.
A Piece of Samizdat from the Memory Hole
You might instead have received this in a heavily encrypted file. Someone slipped it to you on an old, battered “thumb-drive.” (That’s assuming the survival of functioning computers, and people with the knowledge to repair them.) Perhaps you’re reading a faded Xerox of a dog-eared, coffee-stained printout.
Perhaps the State, as in Soviet Russia, hoards all the copy machines to control information. Then you might have a copy someone painstakingly recopied on an old-fashioned “typewriter.” That would be tragically fitting, since the works of Alexander Solzhenitsyn (see entry here) once circulated that way too.
We more than hope, we pray that you inherit a world as prosperous, free, and open as the one we were born into. The kind we’d hoped to leave behind. If it turns out we failed at that, our profound apologies on behalf of our generation. Please accept this document recording the truths and insights which wise men still treasured, in pockets, as of 2020 AD. We hope that you profit from the knowledge. That you can use it to find faith, hope, and love among the ruins.
America: A Definition
We hope that this entry’s title seems quaintly obvious to you, since you live in a strong, stable country, one that still treasures a written Constitution and (at least in theory) objective courts to interpret it. If the states are still united as you read this, breathe a prayer of gratitude, dear countrymen. Because as we write it, that prospect is by no means certain. So we’ll write this as if our worst fears had come to pass, and hope that reading this you’re gently laughing at us for being panicky.
If the states are still united as you read this, breathe a prayer of gratitude, dear countrymen. Because as we write it, that prospect is by no means certain.
Like any nation in history, America was composed of a body and a soul. The “body” is how we talk about the concrete, cultural elements and historical institutions that sparked it and made it strong. The DNA that first wove America’s cells was mostly English, with a fair admixture of Scottish, Dutch, and other northern European, Protestant settlers. America’s first settlers also added a very significant element of African heritage, in the form of slaves bought from African slave-traders, and brought here to work under the whip.
The fact that part of our body was slave, and part was free, would cause America’s closest brush with physical death, in the 1860s. The difficulty of reconciling such disparate DNA, and treating the people of very different ancestries equally, nearly tore us apart again in our own time. Whether it did or not, you’ll know — but we don’t.
Just as a human body discards old cells and generates new ones, America’s material body changed over time — more than most, since we peopled our vast continent with immigrants. First from Northern, then Eastern and Southern Europe, and then from all over the world. Most bodies would stagger, perhaps even split up or die, from such a transplant of new, different chromosomes.
Why We Thrived
But for a long time, America didn’t. There was an excellent reason for that. America had a soul distinct from most other nations. Its soul was not just an organic product of its body, but something very special. You see, the cultures and faith that settlers brought here from England contained a unique element.
Within the complex conventions of “English liberties” and distinctively English Common Law, at their heart like a burning ember, there nestled a fire from heaven. Namely, a vision of the human person (not merely the Englishman or Scot) as distinctly precious, the earthly image of God. And as an image of God, the human person deserved better treatment than most regimes historically offered their subjects.
This spark of divine truth, conveyed from many sources (ancient Greek philosophy, Roman law, both testaments of the Bible, and centuries of the Church pushing back against the State) carried on in the souls and churches of English settlers. Even as America’s body may have sinned against the Indians or the slaves, its soul stayed fixed on that vision of man as unique and free, even sacred.
The Flame of the Founding
The flame of that vision grew brighter and warmer as Americans governed themselves for more than a century, with little interference from Britain. It became a roaring fire after 1763, when Britain’s Parliament tried to rein Americans in, and treat them as hapless subjects of a world empire. Americans, the leaders of Britain began to claim, had no more claim to freedom than landless Irish peasants, or Bengalis subjugated by the East India Company. They could be regulated and taxed, disarmed and billeted with British troops, at Parliament’s absolute whim.
But America’s pastors since the beginning had fanned the fire of liberty, both personal and religious. Citizens young and old had marched straight from their churches to drill in local militias, convinced that they served God himself when they defended their rights as persons.
The vision of freedom that formed America’s soul was biblical, not “Enlightened,” which is why our war of independence against the British never became a bloodbath that pitted rich against poor, believer against freethinker. That would happen in France, because its revolutionaries were pagans. They didn’t look to Athens, Jerusalem, or the Church, but ahead to Utopia, some fantasy castle in empty space that set no bounds to their dreams of power.
The Christian Vision
Our Declaration of Independence laid out, in rational and non-sectarian terms, the deeply Christian vision that formed our soul. It didn’t cite scripture or canon law, but instead drew on the natural law God wrote on the human heart. And it found in this natural law the rights that Englishmen had treasured, and which we ourselves would come to see as distinctively … American.
In time, the same generation would write a Constitution, to discipline their government and make sure that the nation’s body would obey its soul — not the other way round. In writing that Declaration, our Founders took an enormous risk. They cited principles so pure, demanding, and literally heavenly, that any concrete nation would stagger at living them fully. Just so, an aspiring saint who seeks to be “perfect, like your Father in heaven” guarantees himself a life of repeated failure, repentance, and struggle. He willingly accepts the risk of hypocrisy and ridicule, which he could escape by choosing more “realistic,” cynical principles.
Neglecting the Soul
And so our ancestors struggled and failed. But it was a noble struggle, like any saint’s, since it aimed at something divine. Our nation made progress, and sometimes slid back. At times, the body’s appetites — the lure of easy conquest or comfortable exploitation — diverted the soul’s upward climb. We fought unjust wars to take land, we left the slaves in chains. We left the unborn to be cut up and sold by Planned Parenthood. Still, our very charter as a nation was there to shame us.
Despising the Body
At other times, we let the nobility of our founding principles drive us to scrupulosity and pride, to futile wars of international “liberation” that left foreign countries in ruins. Or we mortified ourselves like a misguided monk who starves himself, pushing the soul’s agenda too quickly or even wrongly. We adopted welfare and immigration policies, with good intentions, that sickened the nation and tempted it to self-destructive despair. Our elites got drunk with their own self-righteousness, and decreed that a nation which couldn’t live up to all its ideals at once deserved destruction. Let it die, and something new grow in its place.
We hope they failed. And we wish you the best as you sort through the outcome. May God watch over you and inspire you to learn from the past, both its triumphs and its crimes. You are every bit as human and flawed as we or our ancestors were. Remember that, and forgive us.
Jason Jones is a senior contributor to The Stream. He is a film producer, author, activist and human rights worker. You can follow him at @JasonJonesShow.
John Zmirak is a senior editor at The Stream, and author or co-author of ten books, including The Politically Incorrect Guide to Immigration and The Politically Incorrect Guide to Catholicism.
Together, Jones and Zmirak wrote The Race to Save Our Century. The above is an excerpt from their upcoming book, Forbidden Knowledge.