Memory and Identity


Published June 6, 2023

The Catholic Thing

The strip of Pennsylvania that meanders along the Delaware River is soaked in American history. Quakers founded our borough of Yardley in 1682. Washington crossed the Delaware just five miles north of our home. Trenton, where the Hessians had such a bad morning after Christmas in 1776, and not just from hangovers, is a 10-minute ride from our driveway. Princeton battleground in New Jersey is just another 15 minutes away, at most. So our area is thick with reminders of the Revolution.

These weeks of early summer from Memorial Day (May) through Flag Day (June) to Independence Day (July) are redolent of patriotic zeal. At our parish, after our Mass celebrating Pentecost, the congregation sang “America the Beautiful.” The voices were full-throated and sincere. The next day, on Memorial Day, we watched the town parade from the VFW post at the end of our block, along with hundreds of neighbors who lined the street.

Local parades can be Raggedy Ann affairs; long on enthusiasm, short on glamor. But watching Korean and Vietnam War veterans salute the colors as if they were 20-somethings again, eyes filled with memory and emotion, while re-enactors in Revolutionary War garb march past with their fifes and drums . . . well, it’s a window on something sacred. A thread weaving together generations.

Again and again, men have consecrated America’s virtues and best ideals on the battlefield. They’ve done it with their blood. And that leaves the rest of us with two obligations: gratitude; and the work of sustaining the best of the nation for which they sacrificed.

I mention all this to frame what follows.

A Catholic friend, a former officer and combat veteran whose sons also saw combat for this country, sent me the following email recently:

Historically, I’ve always defined myself as a “conservative,” i.e., committed to conserving this country’s founding values of God, family, country. Those values today are despised and under assault by many of our most powerful institutions, including elite higher education, much of the media, the tech industry, and even the financial industry, including banks and money managers. Many corporations are intimidated by the tyranny of DEI and other “social scores”—think China—and as a result, they’re supporting an anti-family, anti-American agenda.

The speed of this change is breathtaking, and its permanence is unknown, especially given the on-going weaponization of the FBI, CIA, the judicial system, and other organs of state. I still believe that most of the woke agenda lacks support from a majority of Americans. But it succeeds through zealous advocates who’ve mastered the use of threats to manipulate individuals and institutions.

The recent behavior of the retail giant Target is insightful for its vulnerability to LGBTQ and transgender pressure. I suspect many corporations have confused the energy and tactics of the trans community for massive public support. I think Target’s behavior is repugnant to most people, but it may be true that it’s ”good for business.” It may also be true that quite a few Americans have been frightened into passive acceptance. The recent Target and Bud Light controversies may be a defining moment for the success or failure of woke tactics. I’m praying that it will be a watershed that brings back some common sense.

Two things are notable about the email: its obvious frustration, and an undercurrent of misgiving. Did my friend risk his own life in battle, and lead his sons to risk theirs, to serve “God, family, country,” or merely another generous helping of destructive sex and what’s “good for business”? It’s the kind of question my wife and I have asked ourselves. We supported our eldest son when he was accepted at West Point. We were proud of the time he spent there. Our feelings today are far more ambivalent.

In his book Memory and Identity, John Paul II noted that the nation, like the family, is one of humanity’s “natural” societies, and not the product of mere convention. Neither family nor nation can be replaced by anything else. Therefore a proper “patriotism is a love for everything to do with our native land: its history, its traditions, its language, its natural features. . . . Every danger that threatens the overall good of our native land becomes an occasion to demonstrate this love.”

Yet at the same time, while acknowledging John Paul’s wisdom, Charles Chaput warned that “A nation can become so corrupt and Babylon-like that it’s not worth defending, and America is no exception.”

The two statements are not incompatible.

Chaput went on to stress that it’s “proper, and important, for Americans to express gratitude for our democratic institutions. . . .[They’re] a remarkably durable design of government of which we ought to be proud, and to which we ought to be loyal.” But that gratitude and loyalty must be earned by

a healthy society [that] respects and sustains the past, teaching children its history, and weaving together the generations. . . . The historical illiteracy of recent decades widens the conflicts between generations. It also blinds us to the subtle—and more recently, crudely violent—transformations and erosions taking place in our political structures. In many ways this illiteracy is far more perilous than any gap that separates different groups in a pluralistic society.

We live in a time that very much “threatens the overall good of our native land,” methodically undermining the nature of the family; the memory of our culture; and the founding spirit of our nation . . . in other words, the things that anchor our identity as a free people. Many of the mouths that so easily accuse others of “racism,” “fascism” and “hate” are possessed by the same kind of venomous instincts themselves.

I suppose the lesson is this. We need to remember and revere those who died for the founding beliefs and best ideals of America. And as Christians, we need to live in a way that restores them in the nation’s heart.


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