‘Before there were houses in this land, there were altars.” A timelier reminder you could not get, as we confront realities about immigration and secularization in the United States. It’s a point made by the Archbishop of Los Angeles, Jose H. Gomez, as he tries to morally educate, animate, and challenge.
Gomez promotes learning the entire story behind our country’s founding. “Immigrant missionaries were naming this continent’s rivers and mountains and territories for saints, sacraments and articles of the faith,” as he put it in a speech to the Napa Institute last summer.
“Catholics founded America’s oldest settlement, in St. Augustine, Fla., in 1565,” he said. Catholic missionaries and explorers were there before the Pilgrims, George Washington and the rest of our familiar founding figures.
This is to remind us of the diversity of our past, pointing toward an understanding of who we are today. “Although founded by Christians, America has become home to an amazing diversity of cultures, religions and ways of life. This diversity flourishes precisely because our nation’s founders had a Christian vision of the human person, freedom, and truth,” Gomez emphasizes.
“There is no denying significant differences between Hispanic-Catholic and Anglo-Protestant cultural assumptions,” Gomez acknowledged, while also making the case that we are a nation whose story is not complete without both. “When we forget our country’s roots in the Hispanic-Catholic mission to the new world, we end up with distorted ideas about our national identity. We end up with the idea that Americans are descended from only white Europeans and that our culture is based only on the individualism, work ethic and rule of law that we inherited from our Anglo-Protestant forebears.”
“Our culture pushes us to ‘privatize’ our faith, to separate our faith from our life in society,” the archbishop said. “We always have to resist that temptation. We are called to live our faith in our businesses, homes and communities, and in our participation in public life.” His remarks take on a renewed urgency in the wake of President Obama’s re-election — the president’s administration is attacking religious liberty under its health care mandate. In cases where Catholic and Protestant business owners are suing over being forced to pay for insurance that includes abortion drugs, contraception and sterilization, the administration is arguing in federal court that these employers have no claim, that their religious and spiritual beliefs have no protection under our Constitution.
The election also saw leading Democratic politicians insist that it’s a legitimate Catholic view to separate religious beliefs from public policy, especially when it comes to the legality of abortion. At least one Democratic convention speaker even made the case that it was her Catholic faith that made her an advocate of protected and increased abortion access. Perhaps we can all start our remedial civic education work with a reflection on the definition of “authenticity.”
“Every American should know these characters and the ideals and principles they fought for,” Archbishop Gomez said of the early Catholic missionaries, in what has become a familiar scene: religious leaders reminding us of who we are as a people, as they’ve tried to remind us why our religious liberty is such a precious gift we are obligated to protect.
“From this story we learn that our American identity and culture are rooted in essentially Christian beliefs about the dignity of the human person,” he said in that Napa speech.
“America is the only nation in the world that is founded on a creed,” in short, as G.K. Chesterton put it.
An election can unite and it can divide. It can teach the wrong lessons. Alternatively, it can urge renewal, even as some of us find ourselves on a bit of a penitential walk that has to do with much more than one election.
Cardinal Timothy Dolan quoted Chesterton, too, in his speech as president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops at the group’s fall meeting in Baltimore the week after the election. Repeating Chesterton’s question, “What’s wrong with the world?” Dolan reminded that the answer isn’t anyone — a political candidate or institution — but “me.”
At a time when all too many Americans have forgotten what holds us together as a people, as people, again, it doesn’t get more resonant. Whoever is president, our hopes and dreams run deeper than any political party, and knowing our history might help us move forward, together.
Email Kathryn Lopez at firstname.lastname@example.org.