Almost everyone – American or not – across the globe knows about our annual feast of self-congratulation: Independence Day. On 4 July we commemorate the signing of the Declaration of Independence with the fireworks, bonfires, barbecues, banquets, church services, parades, and speeches with which our colonial forebears celebrated the King’s Birthday; not knowing any other means to celebrate a national holiday, we nicked these for the purpose, and they have done an admirable job ever since.
Indeed, the Fourth is the keystone of a whole system of what’s often called the “American Civil Religion.” And it’s complete with its own theology, in which the United States are not merely a nation but an idea – and idea of freedom (whatever that may mean) for the whole world – whose peoples in turn have value to the degree that they resemble us and our liberty-loving ways.
Ours is a Salvation history, with an Old Covenant sworn by the Pilgrim Fathers and commemorated in Thanksgiving, and a New Covenant granted to the Founding Fathers and sealed by the Revolution and the Constitution; this latter document was brought by the Holy Spirit. Regalia of the cultus include the flag, the Liberty Bell, Veterans Day, Memorial Day, the Pledge of Allegiance, and all the rest of it. It has also holy shrines, ranging from the overtly religious ones, such as Washington’s National Cathedral and Church of the Presidents, to Revolutionary and Civil War battlefields such as Valley Forge and Gettsyburg, colonial sites like Plymouth Rock and Jamestown, and the network of Presidential Homes and Libraries.
This Faith was quite consciously invented in the early days of the republic by such as Noah Webster, who coincidentally invented our unique American spelling in order to make British books a little harder to read (a principle later followed by the Soviet and Chinese Communist authorities in revising their alphabets, and Kemal Ataturk in shifting Turkish from the Arabic alphabet to a Latin derivative). It was intended to replace devotion to the Monarchy as a unifying principle in an otherwise incredibly diverse new nation – even as a moral consensus shared by all faiths took the place of an established church. This unique arrangement lasted for almost two centuries, and provided a centre of patriotism religiously imbibed even by such marginal folk as Catholics and Jews – who, in return, and together with blacks, provided much of the popular entertainment in song and on stage that created the largest part of our national self-image.
But the moral consensus shattered in the 1960s, and the American popular religion itself is being consumed in an orgy of iconoclasm, as statues are attacked and places renamed in pursuit of a reparation that can never be defined, let alone satisfied. The America of my childhood, the land of Norman Rockwell and Irving Berlin, is gone beyond recall; the patriotism I was taught, based upon a dying ideology, is fact vanishing.
So if we are not the shining city upon the hill, the last best hope of mankind, what then are we? On the one hand, we are a country that has created some wonderful things, from the cocktail to the Broadway musical; generations who were here already or migrated hence from all over the world worked hard, and created a place that is still pleasant to live in. All of this was done in sight of some of the most magnificent scenery in the world. It is also a country whose Catholics, from their first arrival in Florida in 1598 to the present, have done precious little to convert their neighbours to what remains the One True Church.
So I offer a first step, in the spirit of Fr Aidan Nichols’ The Realm, although we have nothing like the cultural background here that our British co-religionists. The Irish keep St. Patrick’s Day so well in this country that most Americans claim a drop of Irish blood on that day to justify drowning in Guinness and Jameson’s. The Scots attachment to St Andrew’s Day is legendary, as is the Welsh to St David’s; the English are regaining their love of St George, and even the Cornish are trotting out St Piran. Now, a majority of none of these folk could be remotely considered practising Catholics today. So as the meaning (such as it was) behind the Fourth of July fades away, let us Catholic Americans celebrate the patron saint of this land also, and offer it to our fellow citizens as a true national day – if not to pray, then to revel in and celebrate what our country really is.
Who is that patron? Patroness, really – Our Lady of the Immaculate Conception, named as such by our bishops eight years before that dogma was defined in 1854. She has a history here, too, before that: Carlos III, King of Spain, who founded California (and most importantly, Los Angeles) was ruler of Florida, Louisiana, and the Southwest – as well as all Latin America save Brazil, and the Philippines too. He was so dedicated to the Immaculate Conception that he ordered all his bureaucrats in his many realms to swear an oath to defend this doctrine to the death – and prevailed upon the Pope to permit the wearing of blue vestments on Marian feasts, and particularly on the 8th December. This connection to the Blessed Virgin is why our great church in Washington is the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception.
So when the 8th December rolls around again, let us celebrate it as our true national day – not just at Mass, but with barbecues, fireworks, and all the rest, and invite our non-Catholic neighbours to join in the festivities. (These sorts of things are more appropriate to cold weather anyway. After all, look at Bonfire Night in England.) Let the civic rites that once celebrated the birth of King George III now be offered to the Queen of Heaven for her blessing upon and protection of our beloved country. Who knows? A century hence, American bars in London and Edinburgh, Cardiff and Dublin will be crammed with once-a-year Yanks tossing back oceans of cold Budweiser and American rye whisky!