Men Without Memories


Published April 17, 2023

First Things

Simone Weil, the Jewish philosopher and mystic who died young but influenced many of the best Christian minds of the last century, once wrote that “the destruction of the past is perhaps the greatest of all crimes.” History is a record of the past. History matters for a nation in the same way memory matters for a person. Memory is the foundation of identity. A man without memory is a man without identity; a man whose identity can be redefined, and his future redirected, by manipulative others. And this explains, in an oddly logical way, why Americans elected an eccentric narcissist as president in 2016. It explains why 74 million of them voted (but failed) to re-elect him in 2020. Donald Trump’s flaws are legion. But he channeled a widespread fear that America, as traditionally remembered and understood, is being stolen by a gang of thieves. 

The anxiety is warranted. When a heavily armed FBI team raids the home of a pro-life activist like Matt Houck for a sidewalk “crime” that he didn’t commit, and of which he was found innocent, there’s a problem. When FBI analysts and agents target Catholic churches as the breeding ground for potential terrorists, there’s a problem. When the DOJ regards unhappy school parents as a domestic threat, there’s a problem . . . and White House appeals for national unity start to have an ugly scent. In effect, the “patriotism” of our current leadership class boils down to the freedom of everyone else to shut up and do what they’re told. Which is why Timothy Goeglein’s new book, Toward a More Perfect Union, is not just useful, but exceptionally well-timed and important.

Goeglein, vice president of Focus on the Family, is no stranger to national politics. His work on family-related issues has acquainted him well with the poison of cancel culture. He captures the Orwellian nature of today’s attacks on U.S. history and founding ideals with great skill. He’s a “simple” writer in the best sense: clear, articulate, with a solid grasp of the facts, and a pleasing style accessible to any reasonably intelligent reader. 

The author’s goal is two-fold: informing his readers about the nature of today’s fractures in U.S. culture, but also forming people so they can fix those fractures. What results is a ready handbook for defending the history of the United States while acknowledging its flaws. Honesty about the moral failures of America’s past, as Goeglein persuasively argues, in no way subtracts from the distinctive greatness of the American achievement in ordered liberty.

Early in his text, Goeglein notes that for many Americans, especially the young,

. . . there is a fundamental misunderstanding of how government works, what powers it rightly has, and how it can justly use those powers. Whole generations have grown up without understanding basic economics, mistrusting the motives of our nation’s Founding Fathers, and spurning and vilifying those who have made immense sacrifices to create, and then preserve, our constitutional republic . . . There is a direct tie between our civic and historical ignorance and how we treat each other as human beings. 

The results are predictable.

Consider: The founders created a representative republic with checks and balances, rather than a direct democracy. Certain powers are reserved to the states. Federal power is divided among three branches. We have an electoral college for good reason. The Constitution is deliberately difficult to amend. Freedom of religion and freedom of the press have uniquely strong protections. By design, the American system resists both the turbulence of popular mood and the temptation to overcentralized political authority. But all of these basic American principles are now unknown or underappreciated by millions of citizens who vote—if they vote at all. Meanwhile today’s “administrative state”—the tangle of federal bureaucratic agencies with great political muscle and little congressional oversight—grows steadily. And it has its own, and often quite alien, ideological character. Again, as Goeglein notes:

Younger Americans are woefully ignorant of what is in the U.S. Constitution, which is a major cause of our national discontents [since] our citizenry increasingly has no idea how our government works . . . Americans do not even know their own rights. A study by the American Revolution Center found only one-third of Americans knew the Bill of Rights includes a right to a jury trial. [A] report from the American Council of Trustees and Alumni . . . found 60 percent of college graduates don’t know a single step needed to ratify a constitutional amendment, while 50 percent do not know the term length for members of the House of Representatives and U.S. senators. Finally, 40 percent were unaware it is Congress with the sole power to declare war.

Additionally, in the midst of the confusion they helped create, many on America’s political and cultural left now support a new constitutional convention. As Goeglein writes, an updated constitution “would accommodate new ‘rights’ such as guaranteed income, government-funded childcare, increased access to abortion and physician-assisted suicide, liberalization of drug laws, and open borders.”

In his book Memory and Identity, published shortly before his death, Pope John Paul II noted that the family and the nation are among life’s “natural” societies. Both “have a particular bond with human nature.” Every society’s formation “takes place in and through the family.” And something similar can be said about a people’s homeland: “The cultural and historical identity of any society is preserved and nourished by all that is contained within [the] concept of nation.”  Thus, how people remember their country’s past profoundly shapes their future, for good or ill.

This is why attacks on the meaning of a nation’s history are so toxic. It’s why a campaign of reviling, tearing down, and rewriting America’s history confirms so bitterly Weil’s observation that “the destruction of the past is perhaps the greatest of all crimes.” To his credit, in defending America’s past, Goeglein speaks for the best ideals of the American nation—and the generations of those whose sacrifices and hopes, however imperfectly, built it. 

Francis X. Maier is a senior fellow in Catholic studies at the Ethics and Public Policy Center. 


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