When you love a place, both the things that go well and the things that go awry are equally powerful reasons to stay.
When G.K. Chesterton visited America in 1922 he remarked, “America is the only country ever founded on a creed.” He elaborated:
The Declaration of Independence dogmatically bases all rights on the fact that God created all men equal; and it is right; for if they were not created equal, they were certainly evolved unequal. There is no basis for democracy except in a dogma about the divine origin of man. (“What I Saw in America”)
Chesterton seems to be describing, if not an American religion, a theory of America. He is describing ideas on which America was founded. He is giving reasons to admire America. Chesterton’s rhetoric concerning America can easily confuse readers of his earlier works, including “The Flag of the World” in his book Orthodoxy (1908), in which he wrote:
Mere jingo self-contentment is commonest among those who have some pedantic reason for their patriotism. The worst jingoes do not love England, but a theory of England. If we love England for being an empire, we may overrate the success with which we rule the Hindoos. But if we love it only for being a nation, we can face all events: for it would be a nation even if the Hindoos ruled us. Thus also only those will permit their patriotism to falsify history whose patriotism depends on history. A man who loves England for being English will not mind how she arose. But a man who loves England for being Anglo-Saxon may go against all facts for his fancy. He may end (like Carlyle and Freeman) by maintaining that the Norman Conquest was a Saxon Conquest. He may end in utter unreason–because he has a reason.
There are two separate concepts being covered here: 1) what a specific country is, and 2) how and why one should love their own country. Intuitively, we would like to consider #1 the reason for #2. Should not the concept of what a thing is be the reason for why one loves it? But, Chesterton distinguishes between the two concepts. To Chesterton, America had reason for coming into being but the Americans should not love America for that reason, or any reason.
The creedal interpretation of America is usually called the “proposition nation” theory. This is the concept that America is a specific idea that is spelled out in the first paragraph of the Declaration of Independence. To the question: Is America an idea? Chesterton would answer in the affirmative. However, he would warn against loving America for the idea. If you love America for a specific reason, what happens when the reason no longer exists? As the reason goes, so goes your love of country. To illustrate this point, Chesterton uses the example of the troubled English neighborhood Pimlico:
Let us suppose we are confronted with a desperate thing– say Pimlico. … It is not enough for a man to disapprove of Pimlico: in that case he will merely cut his throat or move to Chelsea. Nor, certainly, is it enough for a man to approve of Pimlico: for then it will remain Pimlico, which would be awful. The only way out of it seems to be for somebody to love Pimlico: to love it with a transcendental tie and without any earthly reason. If there arose a man who loved Pimlico, then Pimlico would rise into ivory towers and golden pinnacles;
Pimlico would attire herself as a woman does when she is loved. For decoration is not given to hide horrible things: but to decorate things already adorable. A mother does not give her child a blue bow because he is so ugly without it. A lover does not give a girl a necklace to hide her neck. If men loved Pimlico as mothers love children, arbitrarily, because it is theirs, Pimlico in a year or two might be fairer than Florence. (“The Flag of the World,” Orthodoxy)
America is an idea, yes. But, we should not love America for the idea. We should not love a theory of America. We should love America simply because it is our country. If we love it for the reason of human equality then we might as well leave it. How many times has America turned away from the value of human equality? Slavery, racial discrimination in schooling and housing, Japanese internment during WWII, abortion, etc. All of these would be reasons to leave America. But, if we love America for no reason, simply because she is our country, then we will stay and fight. If we love her then we will strive to achieve the American ideal embodied in the Declaration of Independence. As Chesterton wrote, “Men did not love Rome because she was great, she was great because they had loved her.” The American patriot will not love America because she is great, he will make America great because he loves her.
As Catholics we should love our parish and love our homeland. If they take the kneelers out of your church, that is not a reason to leave, but to stay and make sure they put them back. If your country legalizes abortion, that is not a reason to leave, that is a reason to stay and advocate for the rights of the unborn. When you love a place both the things that go well and the things that go awry are equally powerful reasons to stay. Catholics should not turn tail and run every time something goes awry in their parish, community, or country. “When establishing his church Christ assured the apostles that the gates of Hell would not prevail against it,” Chesterton writes, “When was the last time you saw a gate attack anything?” A gate is a defensive mechanism. We are the offensive. In Ephesians 6:13, St Paul writes:
Therefore put on the full armor of God, so that when the day of evil comes, you may be able to stand your ground, and after you have done everything, to stand. Stand firm then, with the belt of truth buckled around your waist, with the breastplate of righteousness in place, and with your feet fitted with the readiness that comes from the gospel of peace. In addition to all this, take up the shield of faith, with which you can extinguish all the flaming arrows of the evil one. Take the helmet of salvation and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God.
Notice, there is no armor for the back. We are supposed to be moving forward. We are called to be the Church militant. However, we cannot be the Church militant unless we love our parishes, our communities, and our home lands. As Chesterton once wrote, “A soldier fights not because he hates what is in front of him, but because he loves what is behind him.”
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