Not so very long ago (but before people under 30 were born), the communist regimes of Eastern Europe were dismantled, and the Berlin Wall was joyously torn down. Americans could be excused for dreaming that our country, and all we stood for—freedom and democracy—had finally triumphed in the world. The Cold War was over, and we had won it. The new millennium would open up a bright new era of prosperity and peace.
But as the new millennium was barely underway, that dream was shattered by the worst attack upon our homeland since Pearl Harbor. Then commenced the longest war in US history, made all the worse by the early expectation that it would soon be over. The communist menace was replaced by the menace of Islamic terrorism. Finally, in the middle of the “War on Terror” came the world financial crisis of 2007. The COVID-19 pandemic, from which we have only begun to recover, leaves us having to deal with its long-term effects on our country’s social and economic life. The present situation is by no means hopeless, but the easy optimism of 30 years ago is only a dim memory.
This year, we celebrate 245 years of independence from the British Crown. Hearing a reading of the Declaration on the radio several years ago, I was struck by its tone of furious denunciation of the King’s mistreatment of his American subjects. I recalled Queen Elizabeth on her visit to Boston on July 4, 1976, standing in the place where the Declaration was first proclaimed, and beginning her speech with a classic British understatement: “My ancestor, King George, would be surprised to see me here today.” Our nation’s history began in the bloodshed of the revolution, and the passionate war of words that went into the forging of our Constitution. That Constitution was tested in the fire of the Civil War, which some have called the first example and epitome of modern warfare.
With all that Americans have reason to be thankful for (and there is much), our history reveals much to be sorry for as well. All of our successes seem to be accompanied by failures; all of our national virtues are accompanied by vices; and it seems that each period of hope for better times (as in the wake of the fall of communism) ends with a new catastrophe, and another period of trial and tribulation. But still, despite the darkness that interpenetrates her light, America continues to shine as a beacon, a promised land, to peoples from all parts of the world who never cease to stream across our borders.
In his Second Inaugural Address, inscribed in his memorial in Washington, D.C., President Lincoln called the Civil War a penance for the sin of slavery. Even though our leaders are no longer permitted to use Christian language to interpret the signs of the time, we may still see the world financial crisis as a penance for the sin of avarice. And what will be the penance for our Supreme Court having declared the killing of children in the womb a constitutional right? Part of it must surely be the steep decline in marriages and childbearing, and the quarter of our country’s children under 18 who have to live in single-parent households.
In my first parish assignment, the pastor asked me to oversee our parochial school. This duty required me to go one day to a nearby newsstand to ask the manager to hide his pornographic magazines because our children often went there to buy candy after school. To my surprise, the man, who was a Muslim, started to weep. He told me that he didn’t bring his own children into his store because the distributer insisted that he display the magazines or lose his business. He told me he was thinking that the money he could make here wasn’t worth the stress of having to protect his children from our culture.
Sometimes presidents speak words of wisdom when they are about to leave office, as Washington did when he warned against making foreign alliances that might force our nation into unnecessary wars; or as Eisenhower did when he warned against the growing power of the “military-industrial complex.” Most other presidents ignored these words of wisdom. In this present anxious time for our beloved country, let us pray for wisdom for our leaders, and for ourselves, who have the privilege of electing (or deposing) them. On this day of independence, let us pray that America’s failures may teach us humility, just as her successes make us proud.