I woke up Sunday morning July 1 to the voice of National Public Radio’s Krista Tippet posing gentle questions to Jacob Needleman, the philosopher, about his book American Soul: Rediscovering the Wisdom of the Founders. The program, entitled “The Inward Work of Democracy,” was exploring Needham’s view that every achievement of American freedom resulted from a spiritual advance of conscience (http://tunein.com/topic/?TopicId=39623772 ).
What I found remarkable was how much Needleman found in the life and thought of the founders that Anglo-American philosophy since World War II has made unfashionable: modesty and restraint in public office, the balance between individuals and community, conscience understood as a higher calling and the need for inner freedom among people who would rule themselves.
The following Monday I discovered in my mailbox a new book, Reborn on the Fourth of July: The Challenge of Faith, Patriotism and Conscience, an autobiographical account by Logan Mehl-Laituri. The author is an army veteran turned noncombatant conscientious objector, who now lectures about veterans’ issues and Christian perspectives on militarism and nationalism for the Centurion Guild, a group he co-founded for other veterans wrestling with issues of “faith and service.”
These serendipitous happenings prompted me to ponder the spiritual lessons of the American experience. The Fourth of July will be weeks gone by the time this column appears in print (it was posted on America’s Web site in early July), and that other feast of freedom, Bastille Day, will have passed as well. But doing a national account of conscience seems not just right for the season but necessary in these times.
Professor Needleman offers some starting points: the republican modesty of George Washington in stepping down from command of the Continental Army and then from the presidency; Jefferson’s penning of ideals he did not live up to himself and his proposal of a bill of rights; the religious sense of equality motivating Quakers in the antislavery movement; the recognition of national failings by Frederick W. Douglas and Abraham Lincoln, as well as Lincoln’s magnanimity—“with malice toward none, with charity for all’’—and Walt Whitman’s hope for America.
As an American Catholic, I look back with gratitude to John Carroll and the Catholic clergy of the young country, who, unlike later immigrants, were able to embrace the democratic virtues of the new nation without defensiveness. Naturally I also look to John Courtney Murray, S.J., who articulated a rapprochement between the later immigrant church and the American experience. From Murray and his traditional conservative interlocutors I learned to value “ordered liberty” as integral to democracy and to prize dialogue as essential not only to a healthy democracy but also to authentic theological development and a truly catholic church.
I also look to Josiah Royce, whose philosophy of loyalty articulates the religious quest of Americans for meaningful, committed freedom in community. Royce later inspired Martin Luther King Jr. with the inclusive vision of “the Great Community” as the destination of the civil rights movement and the longer American journey through history.
Midsummer should not only be a time to celebrate with fireworks, hamburgers and franks but to examine for ourselves, and to relish, “the blessings of liberty” bestowed upon us.