Wednesday, November 7, 2012

Strangers in a strange land.

This election cycle, I tried to stay away from online debates. I was happy to post thoughtful articles (mostly reflecting on "all nations are as rust on the scales") or "like" other people's posts, but in the blogosphere silence was my rule. The first trimester of pregnancy also kept me well away from... everyone. This made it easy to avoid heated arguments or even heated commiseration with like-minded friends. Solitude and silence is, after all, not a bad way to pray for the nation. 

I got to be Mary instead of Martha for a few weeks.

Now, however, the election is over and I'm back home with the kids, the neighbors, and friends. Those of us who, in good conscience, cannot pay for abortions, birth control, or euthanasia feel acutely that our government does not represent or even protect our most cherished liberties. 

Yes, that's Pompeii. No, I'm not comparing President Obama to Vesuvius. Keep reading.

For (some) Catholic Americans--especially those of us who grew up in the 80's and 90's bubble of prosperity and freedom, this comes as a shock. We thought of America as "safe" and as "home." Our fellow Catholics long ago didn't have that shock: Charles Lwanga hardly expected his pagan king to respect the Faith. Elizabeth Ann Seton knew full well that the American government did not protect her new Church from prejudice. Edmund Campion knew what he was getting into.

But I never thought, growing up, that America was anything but the most advanced human government on earth. "We live in a free country," was the motto of 3rd grade history class.

Maybe we do live in the best possible human government--this may be the best the poor banished children can come up with. Compared to Christians in China, Nigeria, India, and the Sudan, we are free to practice certain aspects of of our faith, if not all. America is still exceptional in that regard. The late great Richard John Neuhaus warned, however:

"The United States in its founding, as is evident in the Religion Clause of the First Amendment, is the great exception to this general pattern [of religious intolerance]. But “American exceptionalism,” also on this score, needs constantly to be reexamined and, when necessary, defended. Without that, the state drives out prophetic religion and establishes a monopoly on public space and public meanings. That is the circumstance referred to as “the naked public square.” Which, as we must never tire of recalling, does not remain naked but is taken over by the pseudo-religion established by state power."

We watched this "naked public square" exercise its might yesterday. Religious freedom is clearly not a fundamental concern for the majority of Americans. Even "religious" Americans believe that faith is a private opinion, compartmentalized and removed from public life. The pseudo-religion of the state takes many forms and is still evolving, but it has driven out the prophetic religions. 

This is not an accusation: it is simply an observation. There is the City of God, and here is the City of Man. Here is Babylon. 

Neuhaus reminds us later in the chapter that, as St. Augustine wrote, no Catholics --no Christians-- can be citizens of this world. Because of a fundamental choice we made, because of the undeserved gift of an eternal King, Babylon has no power over us.

Thomas More lived in Anglican Babylon. Its greatest lion could not tame him.

Lwanga lived in Ugandan Babylon. Its fearsome fires burned him to dust but they could not conquer his soul.

And we live in American Babylon. Nothing can harm us if our hearts belong to God alone.

Cardinal Dolan's letter of congratulations to President Obama echoes More's own "the kings' good servant, but God's first." It's worth a read and I will read it to my children this evening and in the years to come as they learn to navigate their American Babylon--or whatever Babylon they encounter. 

My eldest Philosophical Child was disturbed to learn of the election results this morning. She knows that there is a "bad law" that the bishops and Catholic schools, hospitals, and institutions are trying to resist. She knows what abortion is and which candidates support it. 

I reminded her of the story of Thomas More and asked her if she could remember it. She reflected for a moment and then said, "Well, Thomas More lived with a Bad Law. And now he is in heaven!" 

The perspective of St. Paul! We must encourage each other to be more More and Lwanga than flag or fireworks. Babylon becomes an elevator to heaven when we place our loyalties first in eternity.