As America celebrated its 4th of July with Trump's salute to America, many pundits have signaled that the patriotism displayed was too over the top. Is patriotism a form of nation worship? Let's go to one of the Doctors of the Church for this question. St. Thomas Aquinas addresses the topic of patriotism when he analyzed if piety given to country takes away from piety given to God (S.T. II-II q101). Aquinas is pro-patriotism as he places honoring your country in line with the 4th commandment to honor thy father and mother. What Aquinas is doing is putting patriotism under the virtue of justice. Justice is giving what is owed to another. For example, you owe your employer hard work for paying you well. You owe your spouse fidelity. You owe your parents honor for raising you. You owe God worship for creating you. So, in justice there is a built in mechanism to give back to others what they’ve provided you.
As Aquinas states, "The principles of our being and government are our parents and our country, that have given us birth and nourishment. Consequently man is debtor chiefly to his parents and his country, after God. Wherefore just as it belongs to religion to give worship to God, so does it belong to piety, in the second place, to give worship to one's parents and one's country.”
The reason Aquinas links a person’s home country to their father or mother is because the home country is necessarily rooted in the family lineage of that person. The word "patriotism" stems from the Latin word "patria" which means fatherland or native land. Biblically speaking, the nations outlined in the Old Testament all traced their origins back to a specific family. Recall, that the nation of Israel came from Jacob’s 12 sons. In Ireland, if you can trace your family name back to the early clans, you’ll likely have discovered that these were the people who helped form the country. This is why you’ll often hear people refer to their country of origin as their motherland or fatherland. In short, the country you live in links you towards the family you came from.
As Aquinas states, “The worship due to our parents includes the worship given to all our kindred, since our kinsfolk are those who descend from the same parents, according to the Philosopher (Ethic. viii, 12). The worship given to our country includes homage to all our fellow-citizens and to all the friends of our country. Therefore piety extends chiefly to these.”
Thomas Aquinas places honoring your country as a virtue and to violate would be a vice. Just like our parents give us the gift of our existence, food, shelter, family, faith – all come in some ways by means of the land and our society with citizens of our country. Therefore, we honor our parents and country precisely because they point us to God.
Where patriotism ceases to exist is when rather than the country worshiping God, the country is itself worshiped as a god. The Roman empire did not worship God, they worshiped Caesar and forced its citizens to do such. Countries that deny God or force one to rebuke God won't receive honor. This is why Catholicism doesn't give any reverence to atheistic Communist regimes such as Stalin's Russia, Hitler's Germany, Mao's China, and Pol Pot's Cambodia.
Socialist dictators tried to create a human utopia on earth. One that Karl Marx said needs to be "free from the shackles of religion." Because socialist regimes forced people to give up religion, they then demanded their country to be worshiped as a type of religion. Once God is removed, the State then replaces God as the ruling entity to be worshiped. It is no wonder that Hitler and Stalin stamped their pictures all over the public sphere - they wanted their people to know who to worship. As the common salute in Nazi Germany proclaimed, "Heil Hitler!" So, in the Socialist setting, the politician was god and the real God was to be stripped away along with all the churches that accompany God.
When it comes to America, our very founding reflects a large pointing finger towards God and not towards a political figure. As American currency has always declared, "In God We Trust." In other words, the American governing body understands that ultimate ruling power and authority does not come from the government, but from God. Under this context, loving our country does not mean we worship our country any more than honoring your parents doesn't mean you worship them. We love and honor our country and parents precisely because they've created the environment in which our faith and freedom can flourish.
While America's founders were mainly Protestant, the ideals of America are actually more Catholic than we typically think. In his book, Catholic Republic, Tim Gordon gives a convincing argument that the principles outlined in the American founder's are deeply Catholic. That is, the founding father's, whether they know it or not, were drawing off Catholic themes echoed by St. Thomas Aquinas.
In the opening lines of the Declaration of Independence, the founders specifically indicate their intentions are derived from God. "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness."
This famous line is the Declaration is drenched with Catholic motifs.
First, the fact that these fundamental truths are "self-evident" evokes the Catholic concept of natural law. Protestants generally don't accept natural law theology because as John Calvin opined, creation suffers from "total depravity." Thus, nothing good or intelligent can come out nature whereas Aquinas famously declared "grace perfects nature" and that creation tells us more about the Creator. That is, nature acts as a sign of communication from God. Natural law also says that nature is intelligible and that we can know it almost instinctively. It is intelligible because it comes from a grand intelligence, namely, God.
If something is "self-evident" it communicates within its very nature of what that thing is and what can be known about it. Paul talks about God's very existence as being self-evident as well. "For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them. Ever since the creation of the world his invisible nature, namely, his eternal power and deity has been clearly perceived in the things that have been made" (Romans 1: 19-20). Here, Paul is articulating natural law in that the design of the world itself communicates God's existence. This communication comes from itself; it comes from its essence, its nature.
The second phrase that outlines the Biblical theme within the Declaration is "all men are created equal." Today, the word equal has caused much confusion. Julia Shaw writes the definition of "equality" in the Declaration is not the same as the pop culture's understanding of the word "equality." Being created equal does not mean being created to have the exact same outcome. Obviously, nature communicates that people are created physically and mentally different from one another. Rather, equality, under the context of natural rights, indicates that all people have the same value. Therefore, all human beings, regardless of their physical distinctions (sex, skin color, hair color, etc.) and internal beliefs (religious or political views) posses the same value and have access to these fundamental rights. The founder's concept of all human beings having the same intrinsic importance is drawing off the Biblical theme in which all mankind were created in God's very image (see Genesis 1:27). The founders then attach this basic rights as "endowed by their Creator." If all men are created in God's image than all men hold the same value. Thus, no one, no matter how smart a person might be, no one has the right to dominate over another person.
It is important to note that equality in natural law has nothing to do with producing the same results. Politicians often speak about income inequality in that people have different outcomes economically, socially, etc. These claims are misguided and simply try to get the masses in an emotional frenzy in which they can conveniently place blame on an outside source for their own perceived shortfalls. Given that people are different in many areas, the outcome of all people will never be the same. Some will succeed along the way and some will fail along the way. What the founders wanted to do is to create a path in which everyone has access to the same natural rights (life, liberty, property/pursuit of happiness). In fact, we naturally crave an unequal outcome. Would you pay money to see sports games in which every outcome ended in a tie? Therefore, the inequalities (different outcomes) that persist are a natural by-product of the diversity we share.
Some people are better at computer programming while some are better at plumbing, teaching, or administration work. The point in natural rights of equality is to not think a lawyer that makes $300,000 a year has more value than a day care teacher that makes $30,000 a year. Or, that a baby in the womb has less value than a woman who doesn't want to be pregnant. As the founders articulate, we may have unequal outcomes (which is normal), but we hold the same value as we all come from the same divine source - God. Therefore, our founding fathers had the wisdom to declare that a person's worth doesn't come from how attractive they are, how much money they make, or from where they live. Rather, a person's value comes from being created in the image of God - which is something all people share. Ironically, those that want to throw-away their image to God by pursuing the pleasure of this world are the one's who end up tarnishing their divine stamp within.
The third example of the Christian assumption within the Declaration is how the founder's defined what rights are - life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. All three have a Catholic coating on them.
The right to life is a fundamental Catholic teaching. This is why the Church continuously teaches and promotes the pro-life movement. In fact, Pope Benedict XVI indicated that you can't be Catholic and hold pro-abortion views. To be Catholic and be pro-abortion would be a contradiction - akin to saying that you are a married-bachelor.
The right to liberty is synonymous with the Catholic idea of the right to freedom. Liberty is defined as having the free choice to do the good the way you best understand based on knowledge of natural law. The pop culture has twisted liberty with the term license (i.e. entitlement). License is you have the ability to do anything without reference to the end good of the act (e.g., I am free to have an abortion). However, the founders "freedom" is not the pop culture's shallow concept to be able to do whatever you want to do. Aquinas (along with Plato) taught that freedom is the ability to choose to live how you were designed to live. A person isn't free when they allow their flawed desires to govern them to do whatever they want. They are, in fact, a slave of their desires in which their desires force them to do things their conscience wants to reject. For example, an alcoholic doesn't want to drink, but his cravings control him to. Under the Catholic view, a person is free when they live how they were designed by God to live much like a fish is free when the fish lives in the water rather than outside the water.
The founder's assertion of the "right to pursue happiness" doesn't merely reflect go and have fun. Rather, it's regarding the right to pursue that which makes one fulfilled. If we are honest, we know only God can do this (see here). As St. Augustine wrote, "Our hearts are restless until they rest in thee oh God.
So, we can see that these natural rights that America was founded on originated from Catholic soil. Sadly, the more we drift from the principles of 1776, the more these rights become subverted.
The framers more clearly defined these natural rights in the 14th amendment as: life, liberty, and property. As America becomes increasingly secular and progressive, these natural rights have become flipped on its head.
The right to life has been taken away by abortion. Today, the most innocent person, a small, fragile human being does not have the right to life. Rather, the baby's right to life is trumped by the mother's right to "choose."
The right of liberty (i.e. freedom) is now the right to do whatever a one wants to do where the person plays the role of god and can define things that he or she didn't create. If you doubt this just read the brief of Justice Kennedy in the 1992 Planned Parenthood v. Casey case in which he stated, "At the heart of liberty is to define one's own concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe, and of the mystery of human life." So, instead of the founder's declaration that liberty comes from the Creator, Kennedy now insists that liberty comes from the self.
The right to property is being stripped away as the government can take your property, your goods for other use (see Kilo v. City of New London). Moreover, the popular socialist idea of income redistribution denies your right to property and seeks to take people's earned goods and distribute out as the government deems fit.
Therefore, the fundamental rights we acknowledged in the 18th century are actively being gutted by progressive principles. This descent from Catholic ideas in the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution to now a subversion is summed up by Tim Gordon's statement that "America is wired Catholic, labeled Protestant and currently functioning secular."
All of our ideas have an ultimate source on where they originate from. We can identify this source as simply either God or the self. Which source does a country acknowledge as the correct one? When it comes to how we think as a country, we identify if a person is conservative because they are a conserving the original rights outlined in the Constitution. A person is liberal because they want to liberate (break free from) and fundamentally change the meaning of the rights in the Constitution. It is no coincidence that from one's political views of conservative or liberal, one's theology follows suit. I've never heard of a Catholic that had a liberal view of the Constitution but had a conservative view of the Church. You eventually become one or the other in both spheres because both areas address the source of our fundamental rights of what it means to be a human person.
Let's look back at the original documents to see how Catholic they are. For this reason, we can be proud to be an American and hope that we can pay more attention to the spirit of 1776.