Editor’s Note: What does it mean to be Catholic, American and Southern? Farrell O’Gorman ’90, now the chair of English at Belmont Abbey College, explored how the threads of spiritual, national and regional inheritance bind and fray in this 2005 essay that speaks to religious, cultural and political currents still buffeting the nation today.
Last Memorial Day, channel-surfing past commercials for Botox and Viagra, I came across a spokesman for a group offering its own radical rejuvenation scheme: Christian Exodus seeks to relocate “12,000 or more Christians” to a single state, secede from the Union and establish “a Christian nation with government similar to the early United States.” ChristianExodus.org promises that the new nation will offer “a small government based upon capitalist free enterprise and Christian morality.” The three states under consideration—Alabama, Mississippi and South Carolina—have a relatively small population, a seaport, a “Christian conservative citizenry” and (the band can play “Dixie” now) “a rich history of standing up for its rights.”
The folks at Christian Exodus seem to be just the sort of sectarian fundamentalists who have historically been loathe to categorize Roman Catholics as Christians. One wonders: would Catholics find a place in their purified version of early America? The 1778 Constitution of South Carolina proclaimed “the Christian Protestant religion” to be “the established religion of this state,” and Georgia’s 1732 colonial charter proclaimed that “all persons, except papists, shall have a free exercise of their religion.” Lingering loyalties to the old USA would be enough of a problem in this new Promised Land; any degree of loyalty to a Roman pontiff would certainly be too much.
As a Catholic native of South Carolina and a current resident of Mississippi, I would have particular cause to be alarmed by this neo-secessionist scheme if I thought it had any chance of being realized. I don’t. All the Southerners I know best—Catholic, Protestant, Hindu, agnostic or otherwise—will laugh them out of wherever they seek to go, whether from high-minded patriotic motives like preserving the legacy of Washington and Jefferson, pragmatic ones like maintaining the local economy, or flatly hedonistic ones like preventing the repeal of liquor licenses and the probable dissolution of the Southeastern Conference.
However, these Protestant secessionists do have me again contemplating a favorite essay by Walker Percy, the Catholic writer, Mississippi native and 1989 Laetare Medal winner, about how one can be American despite being Southern and Catholic. Of course one can. But in my own experience there is a healthy tension between defining oneself as a Catholic and defining oneself as an American. And that tension is strangely paralleled in my experience as an American whose family has always lived in the South, that region which, despite supplying the nation’s first president and the author of the Declaration of Independence, has historically been seen as the great exception to national norms.
My own particular experience also grows in part out of my reading of American literature. One of my students once commented after an American literature course: “I always thought America was the land of promise. But now I know that it’s the land of racism, sexism and greed.” It profoundly bothered me that this was the deepest insight he might take away from reading the likes of William Faulkner and Edith Wharton and Ralph Ellison. He could have “learned” as much watching CNN.
I had to say something in reply, and it came to me that my own view was that held by a woman from Georgia whose work we had just read. “The wisdom of a writer like Flannery O’Connor is not that these are exclusively or especially ‘American’ vices,” I responded. “She would say our problem isn’t that we’re particularly corrupt; our problem is that we tend to think we’re innocent.”
Flannery O’Connor was a thoughtful Christian writing in the two decades following World War II—a time when, she feared, modern rationalism was on the verge of eradicating religious belief altogether, at least among the “educated.” She was also a Catholic living in an overwhelmingly Protestant South that she alternately admired and deplored. She believed that her seemingly peculiar geographical circumstances somehow worked to her advantage as a writer.
Reflecting on Percy’s half-joking remark that the region had produced so many good writers in the 20th century “because we lost the War,” she wrote: “He didn’t mean by that simply that a lost war makes good subject matter. What he was saying was that we”—Southerners—"have had our Fall. We have gone into the modern world with an inburnt knowledge of human limitations and with a sense of mystery which could not have developed in our first state of innocence—as it has not sufficiently developed in the rest of the country."
The American conviction of innocence she speaks of here goes back, paradoxically, to one group of British colonists who believed profoundly in sin and another who believed not in sin but in error. Neither liked Catholics much.
The Pilgrims and the Puritans
The most rabid anti-Catholics in the 13 colonies were those very Pilgrims and Puritans we celebrate as our nation’s spiritual founders. They were Calvinists who came to the New World not only to escape political persecution but also because they thought the Anglican Church established by Henry VIII was still too Catholic. The Puritans at Massachusetts Bay hoped their colony would serve as a model that would ultimately inspire England to purify itself by removing all traces of the popish past. The Pilgrims who reached Plymouth a decade earlier had given up on the Old World altogether, deeming themselves the new Chosen People and entering their “New Canaan” wary of both the non-Christian natives they found there and the “Babylonian” captors they had fled in Europe.
In these antebellum days when New England was the Bible Belt, its inhabitants lived in a state of conflict with both their neighbors and their forebears. While they ardently professed the doctrine of Original Sin, they also believed that God’s Elect—those whose innocence had been restored—dwelt only in their ranks. They saw America as the land of the free insofar as it was free of sin, the sin that its native inhabitants had been born into and that “the Whore of Babylon”—the Roman Catholic Church—had championed in Europe. The Old World, these Reformation Christians believed, was drenched in history and guilt. Only in the New World could redeemed innocence flourish.
This New England vision continues to inform American culture, often in admirable ways. John Winthrop’s image of his Massachusetts Bay colony as “a model of Christian charity,” outlined in his 1630 sermon of the same name, would inspire abolitionists over two centuries later. His famous portrayal of America as a “City on a Hill” has been more recently echoed by presidents Kennedy and Reagan.
But fortunately for Catholics, as for other non-Calvinists, our political system came not directly from people like Winthrop of Massachusetts but from people like Franklin of Pennsylvania and Jefferson of Virginia, thinkers who stressed secular freedoms rather than spiritual ones. For precisely this reason, Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson were not anti-Catholic in the same way the New Englanders were. But these two founders, who tended to deify Reason as befitted their Enlightenment milieu, were Protestant in spirit. They tended to deify The Individual. They wanted to give each American freedom to think and to choose using his own reason—for which we all have good cause to be grateful.
Nonetheless, just about the last thing they thought reasonable was Roman Catholicism. Franklin’s Autobiography makes it abundantly clear that he found it difficult to stomach traditional religion and preferred to spend his Sundays pursuing “practical” study. The quintessential self-made man devised a do-it-yourself system of morality with only the vaguest of religious elements.
Jefferson thought Jesus was a great moralist but that He never claimed to be divine, let alone to have instituted a divine Church. In fact, the Virginian wrote what has become known as The Jefferson Bible, a soothingly rational version of the Gospels purified of distracting supernatural elements like the Resurrection. Like Franklin, he believed not in sin but in error and in our ability to overcome error using unaided human reason.
Radically different as Jefferson and Franklin were from their Calvinist predecessors, all believed that the new circumstances of the New World provided Americans the opportunity to start over in the most radical sense—as though the place were a New Eden. They contributed to what observers of our culture have deemed the notion of American Exceptionalism. As Americans, we tend to believe that we are exempt from the historical forces that have corrupted other nations. At most, we’ve been chosen by Jehovah. At least, we are free of European history with all its feudal baggage and self-defeating superstitions, free of past mistakes, free to shape our own destiny. And we can trust not only God but also our Selves to guide us in that endeavor.
There can be no question that, along with the new nation’s policies toward native tribes, the specific national sin which made the notion of American Exceptionalism look downright delusional immediately following the Revolution was slavery.
So far I’ve been talking primarily about books and ideas. To many, these might seem like abstractions. To me, they are not. They are grounded in concrete reality. I care about them in large part because of family and because of place.
My parents live in a house in rural South Carolina that was built immediately after the Civil War. It was built for my great-great-grandmother, who came from a colonial family that had owned hundreds of slaves, and my Tipperary-born great-great-grandfather, who had owned none but still by 1861 had ended up in Charleston and then in the Confederate Army (his brother in New York fought for the Union). The two of them married after she, childless, had been widowed by the war. Together they came to own not only the house but also a good deal of farmland in the country surrounding. Along with their children and grandchildren, they became deeply involved in the sharecropping system that followed the war.
Sharecropping—however pragmatically benevolent the system might, at its best, have seemed at the time—was built on a fundamental injustice. It stemmed from a position where the white landowners had been bequeathed undisputed economic advantage over a race of people who had been brought to this country not by choice but by violence and who, at the end of the 19th century, had two centuries of enslavement behind them and seven decades of Jim Crow ahead.
After World War II sharecropping began to disappear, as did the railroad that ran in front of my great-great-grandparents’ house and as did most of whatever wealth the family had acquired. But the house remains. My parents moved into it a decade ago, and when I go there now I am surrounded by not only the written history within but also the living history without, the descendants of those sharecroppers and others like them who inherited a three-century old legacy of legally enforced deprivation.
When I walk on the farmland that has been in our name since the 19th century, I am reminded of something else: This land was initially acquired when those who had lived on it for untold centuries were swindled or forcibly driven out of it by people who had better weapons.
My family is Irish Catholic, so there is at least one obvious irony in this history, an irony highlighted by the fact that the farm’s legal name has always been that of my great-great-grandfather’s hometown: Clonmel. There, the native Irish had for centuries received much the same treatment from colonial invaders that non-Europeans received in the New World. At the same time that the American colonies were being settled, English Protestants were either driving Irish Catholics into the far west of their native country or working them as tenants on land the invaders now claimed as their own.
When the Great Famine finally forced my ancestors into the New World, my great-great-grandfather ended up not in the increasingly urban Northeast, where the efficient removal of native cultures had made room for the quintessentially modern nexus of capitalism, democracy and industrialism, but in a strange simulation of the social order he had just left. The American dream was supposedly to escape history. What he accomplished was, in large part, repeating history. This time he was on top.
This is the obvious irony. But the deeper one is this: If he had not acquired that house and land and those that followed had not held onto it as they did, I would not see or feel any of this. It—and maybe history itself—would only be something in a book, something on TV. Not something real.
And something real not only to me. My father’s brother, who spent most of his life as a successful businessman in New York City, sensed it too. When he came back home for his mother’s funeral he saw on my desk a copy of The Burden of Southern History—Yale historian C. Vann Woodward’s classic argument that the Southern experience of defeat, poverty and guilt provides a valuable counterpoint to the larger American myths of success, opulence and innocence. My uncle eyed the cover for a long time. “That’s a good title,” he said. “The burden of Southern history.” He must have been reminded of that burden every time he came back to his hometown, though to him—who had left the agrarian past behind for success in the American city—the burden was probably not so much guilt as economic lassitude. For he saw himself in the light not of Jefferson but of Franklin.
The Franklin model
Northerners and neo-conservative Southerners alike, I think, prefer to claim the Franklin model of the self-made man. But because of Jefferson, all Americans are partly Southern. Like the classically proportioned, white-domed house our genius third president named Monticello, the rhetorically beautiful Declaration of Independence and Bill of Rights that he designed are the work of a mind whose leisurely intellectual freedom was made possible by black bodies that did the dirty work: tending the fields, cleaning the stables, cooking the food. Jefferson obviously participated in a gross moral error when he wrote that “all men are created equal” but continued to own slaves himself. That error was so glaring that it moved even his relentlessly logical mind to a sense of something beyond rational ken. In his Notes on the State of Virginia, he uncharacteristically reflected on a God who might “by supernatural interference” punish Americans for slavery: “Indeed, I tremble for my country when I reflect that God is just; that His justice cannot sleep forever.”
These words were later echoed by another American president who also was generally more given to Enlightenment-style rationalism than to religious prophecy. In his 1865 Second Inaugural Address, Kentucky-born Abraham Lincoln powerfully affirmed that God “gives to both North and South this terrible war, as the woe due to those by whom the offence” of slavery came—a woe that might justly afflict both sides “until all the wealth piled by the bondman’s 250 years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash shall be paid by another drawn with the sword.”
Lincoln concludes by shifting his focus from a vengeful Old Testament God to more characteristically New Testament imperatives that Americans learn to practice “charity for all.” In the address as a whole he, like Jefferson before him, seems to me somehow Catholic. He does so not so much in his sense of an interventionist God (whom the Puritans were quite familiar with) as in his sense that Americans are not merely individuals set free to pursue spiritual or economic self-advancement but are ultimately bound together in a communal history—somehow responsible for one another, for one another’s interests and for one another’s sins. And “one another” includes the dead as well as the living. This is not exclusively Catholic, but it is certainly a view of reality that is much closer to the Catholic view than to the Pilgrim-cum-Enlightenment strategy of perpetually separating oneself from sinful others and the sinful past.
Both Jefferson and Lincoln finally denied American innocence and articulated something quite like the “sense of mystery” O’Connor spoke of. They also anticipated Faulkner’s famous statement that “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.”
Faulkner, who offers a more historically grounded version of O’Connor’s ultimately otherworldly vision, joins the Georgia writer and the two presidents in marking the subcurrent in American thought that I most deeply admire. For all in one way or another posit that to be an American is not to be innocent but rather to participate in a story much like Faulkner’s multivolume narrative of the intricately interwoven white, black and native families who inhabit the countryside around the fictional town of Jefferson, Mississippi. To be an American is to stand in the place of Isaac McCaslin in the novel Go Down, Moses: to inherit a legacy that we must learn to recognize as tainted yet worthy — a legacy we must not shun but continually seek to participate in redeeming.
My great-great-grandparents were not innocent. From our early 20th century vantage point it is easy to see that and to judge them — to judge how they participated in the socioeconomic injustices of their time and place, injustices built on racist foundations. Those injustices are now, to us, clear and odious. But no individual is fit to fully judge a family’s history, let alone the nation’s. Especially knowing that we, too, will be judged by our descendants — for wasting our riches and destroying the Earth that God has given us, or for permitting unregulated consumerism and lust for power to trump our necessary respect for the sanctity of all human life, or for flaunting our military might in a manner that invites the world’s distrust. Or for other acts or failures to act that we are not even aware of yet.
Honest human reflection and informed Catholic insight alike should teach us that American Exceptionalism is a dangerous idea. No nation is innocent, and none is so exceptional as to be elected above the common fate of humanity. But Catholic habits of thought can also help us to become better Americans by giving us a clearer perspective on our nation than we might get from narrower sources. Catholicism should compel us to be countercultural in such a way that we ultimately benefit the larger culture.
The orthodox line held by Pope John Paul II and dissenting voices within the American Church alike have this in common: They inevitably call for U.S. Catholics to counter our country’s ongoing tendency toward moral smugness on the international stage; its growing tendency to idolize individual choice and downplay communal responsibilities in domestic matters; and, above all, its obvious materialism. This last is bound up with our American inclination to worship free enterprise, which, despite our usual political labels, is the least conservative force imaginable. It is a force that levels tradition. It will close down old Main Street to build a Wal-Mart; it, in and of itself, would support cloning and child pornography if that’s what the market demanded. How can Christian Exodus claim to represent true Christianity on one hand and idolize Adam Smith on the other, as though Jesus came to tell us to be hard-working capitalists?
My particular concerns in this regard come in part from spending my childhood in a rural South where people ideally sought to stay put on the land and in the traditions their families handed to them rather than going wherever the best-paying new job was and assuming the identity that job demanded. But that South was also provincial and often jingoistic. Worst of all, it tended to equate Christianity with Americanness.
A few of my Protestant classmates reminded me of this, giving me comic books about the Apocalypse in which the Antichrist wore a papal miter and ran the United Nations, telling me I worshipped Mary and the pope, and inviting me on mountain retreats where I dutifully sang hymns and participated in Bible study and was finally asked to come clean and accept Jesus Christ as my personal Lord and Savior. (Hadn’t He already accepted me, I thought, and the problem was not accepting Him in one magic moment but instead trying day by day to live as He would have me do?)
But I took pride in being in the minority — South Carolina was less than 5 percent Catholic. It was a pride that, paradoxically, came from being humbled in the way the Gospel deems appropriate for Christians, and faith in the institutional Church perhaps came easier in the South precisely because our outnumbered leaders were not capable of the kind of hubris that seems to have characterized some U.S. bishops during the recent pedophile scandals.
So it simply was not possible for me to feel smothered by Catholicism as some of my Notre Dame classmates felt smothered by it in Chicago or New York: Catholicism in South Carolina necessarily felt countercultural. And if my pride in it was in part simple clannishness, something that separated my family from our immediate neighbors, Catholicism also manifested itself as something that bound me to an international community. When in ninth grade the time came for me to settle on a foreign language class, I sought the advice of my father, who remembered the pre-Vatican II Mass he had heard daily as a student at Belmont Abbey College, a Benedictine institution outside Charlotte. Eyeing me fixedly, he dismissed German, Spanish and French. “Latin,” he counseled, pronouncing the name with relish and with an authority that seemed at once sober and visionary.
“It wouldn’t do me any good. It’s a dead language.”
“Yes, but you can go anywhere and talk to a priest.”
I envisioned myself 10 years older, grizzled and worldly, perhaps in the merchant marine. Pulling into Shanghai with a duffel bag on my back, walking cat-ridden streets and alleys, knocking at a door and greeting a saffron-skinned man in a Roman collar: Vale, pater.
My father’s linguistic fantasies aside, the Church had opened the door to a larger world for him in a number of ways. His Benedictine teachers, themselves educated partly in Europe, found freedom from local prejudices inside their monastery walls. It was they who, in the late 1950s, organized a gathering with students from a local black college. When my father told them he didn’t socialize with colored people, they told him that today he would.
As for myself, I still remember the surprise I first felt at seeing a brown-skinned husband and a white wife attending the small parish church in my father’s hometown. This surely seems no big deal nowadays, but in rural South Carolina in the 1970s it was something to remember.
The Catholic Church in America
This is what the Church in America, at its best, can be: not only a sign of universal humanity that cuts across divides of race and class, but also a place where Catholic teaching frees us from what we wrongly deem to be freedom — as with my father’s submission to the monks who told him blacks were his equal. From a perspective geographically and historically broader than any narrowly “American” one, the Church constantly reminds us that what we think of as liberty might well be slavery. We are called to embrace standards of community, responsibility and self-discipline, standards that run counter to what our immediate culture often teaches. Our clerical leaders are sworn to poverty, chastity and obedience — what could be more un-American? If God’s an American, then why’s the pope Polish? Or German? Or (one day) Venezuelan or Nigerian? And what’s he doing in Italy?
I’ve found that Catholicism can not only give me a critical perspective on America but also can help me to make better sense of what I love about it. The whole notion of loving America as an idea or ideal, noble as it sounds, seems to me both more dangerous and less honest than loving it as a reality. As a Catholic whose faith is grounded in the sacraments, I know that what I love in the real sense of the word must be concrete: that which I can taste, touch, see, hear.
When I think about what I really love about America, it’s stuff I can feel in my gut. I’d miss the look and feel of the land, the way I used to miss damp blue-green pine horizons when I lived in the asphalt and dry open hills of southern California. Given time and money, there’s not much I’d rather do than get in my car and start driving west until the grass ends in desert and rock, then high up north along the grand blue Pacific, east over high peaks and long prairies, all the way through wooded New England to the rocky Atlantic and south toward home again. If I don’t watch myself I can start sounding like that crazed quasi-Catholic Jack Kerouac, too in love with America to sit still, perpetually longing to be on the road.
America at its best stands for two things we rightly treasure: a recognition that all cultures hold something of value, and — most profoundly — an insistent recognition of the value of the individual. Yet neither of these ideas is exclusively American. Both are recognized by the Church as well, the first perhaps increasingly so in an era when Catholicism seems to be more alive outside of Europe than within it. The second, contrary to popular belief, was not invented by the USA: Modern Western individualism is deeply rooted in older Christian thought. Yet the Church reminds us that we are not only individuals, and that we are incapable of achieving the good of the world — or even our own good as individuals — on our own.
The primary reason I love the country, of course, has to do with the people around me. The better I know them the clearer it is that their individual identities have only a limited amount to do with the big ideas of America I’ve been talking about. At the same time, my own family history tells me the reality of America is imperfect. And I guess the best I can feel about the USA is the best I can feel about my family: I have a great family, wouldn’t trade it. But it’s not perfect, and it seems absurd to go around chanting “We’re the greatest family in the world!” It’s not my duty to cheerlead about it. It’s my duty to love it.
This much, perhaps, reason alone could tell me. But, in addition, Catholicism teaches me humility not only as an individual but also as an American. What’s the point of shouting that we live in “the greatest country in the world?” Isn’t there something deeply worldly about wanting to make such a claim in the first place — “worldly” in the sense condemned in the Gospel of John, which tells us we must not live by the standards of this world?
Finally, Catholicism tells me I’m bound up with and responsible for all those around me, both in my nation and beyond it. I can’t take individualism to its absurd extreme and seek to become a nation or a church or a world unto myself. I must recognize all those squabbling individuals around me as somehow united not only by our common history but also, most deeply, as souls called to live in the body of Christ, who died for all and who calls us to serve those around us, wherever we may be and in whatever necessarily sin-ridden history we may find ourselves.
Farrell O’Gorman teaches English at Mississippi State University and is the author of Peculiar Crossroads: Flannery O’Connor, Walker Percy, and Catholic Vision in Postwar Southern Fiction.