In its earliest years, America celebrated the right to liberty every Fourth of July even though slavery made those celebrations a lie. But then Christian abolitionists and the deeply religious Abraham Lincoln would end slavery by calling the country back to its founding principles.
After that, we celebrated the right to the pursuit of happiness even while we denied women the right to vote and refused to give blacks equal dignity with whites. But Christian suffragettes like Susan B. Anthony and a civil-rights movement led by the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. changed that, again by appealing to our founding principles.
Today we celebrate the right to life on the Fourth of July despite being a nation in which abortion is the most common surgery performed on mothers under age 40. And today, as always, it is religious people who are insisting America follow its founding vision.
Religion is the key to America's future for three reasons.
Religion is key because America's founding principles are religious principles. Our Founding Fathers declared that we are “endowed by Our Creator” with certain rights. Their foundation was the “laws of nature and of nature's God.”
Religion is key because America is a system of self-government. People who live by a high standard of conduct can be trusted to govern themselves. People who don't, can't. If moral commitment doesn't control the people, government must.
And third, religion is the key to America's future because there really is a God who really is our creator. He really is the basis of the authority of government, the animator of our freedom and the source of our morality. He really does bless those who recognize him. And those who fall out of grace with him always do so to their ruin.
In his 1996 trip to Baltimore, Pope John Paul II pointed out that “the democratic system itself” is “shaken in its foundations” when it is twisted against human rights.
But America, he said, “possesses a safeguard, a great bulwark, against this happening. I speak of your founding documents: the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, the Bill of Rights. These documents are grounded in and embody unchanging principles of the natural law whose permanent truth and validity can be known by reason, for it is the law written by God in human hearts.”
If religion is the key to America, then the biggest crisis in our country right now is its crisis of faith.
It is a crisis in which the Constitution and the Bill of Rights are invoked against the religious consciences of the people. Government too often impedes religion by denying Americans their right to pray at civic gatherings, stripping religious symbols from the public square and banishing God to private life. We are in a crisis when government won't allow families to protect their children from pornography, couples to protect marriage from being redefined or society to protect women and their children from the predatory clutches of the big business of abortion.
The Holy Father told the National Prayer Breakfast in 2000 that it is up to religious people to end this crisis. “I would go so far as to say that their task is to save democracy from self-destruction,” he said. “Democracy is our best opportunity to promote the values that will make the world a better place for everyone, but a society that exalts individual choice as the ultimate source of truth undermines the very foundations of democracy.“
We would argue this task falls to Catholics most of all.
After all, Catholic theology uniquely understands the interrelationship between natural law and divine revelation. Just as Thomas Aquinas was the great defender of both theology and common sense, Catholics today uniquely understand aspects of natural law the world has forgotten: Our teachings on abortion, marriage and even contraception are defenses of what man can know without revelation.
Second, Catholics are most responsible for the future of America because of sheer numbers. Immigration from Mexico and family sizes mean the old Protestant America is falling off a demographic cliff. Tomorrow's America will no longer be white and Protestant but browner and Catholic.
And last, Catholics are most responsible for the future of America because we are the Church founded by Christ on the rock of Peter, the one Church that Christ promised would prevail against the gates of hell. Certainly, other Christian denominations rightly worship God, as the Second Vatican Council said. But Christ founded one Church, not many denominations, and that one Church is the one that carries God's guarantee.
Catholics already have a clear plan to follow to begin the task of re-Christianizing America. It's “The Plan” unveiled by Pope John Paul II in his 2001 apostolic letter Novo Millennio Ineunte (At the Beginning of the New Millennium) we mentioned in the June 20-26 editorial.
He called for a creative, vigorous and wide-scale promotion of the fundamentals of Catholic life: Sunday Mass, confession, prayer and community service. These basic practices are simple to explain, they are an easy sell for most people and, when followed, they transform lives. If we promote them successfully, we will spark a major religious renewal.
Alongside this “New Evangelization,” Catholics need to take a direct involvement in the political questions of our day. As the candidacy of Sen. John Kerry shows, too often Catholics reject the tenets of their faith for political expediency. Our first task is to reject such candidates. And we are rejecting them. As the many examples on our front page show, Catholics who refuse to dissent from the key tenets of their faith are already making a difference in the political arena.
Can we succeed? The Pope thinks so. We should accept and imitate the optimism he showed at the 2000 National Prayer Breakfast. There, he said:
“Today America's optimism is being tested, but the Gospel of Jesus Christ remains the sturdy foundation of hope for the future.”