In What I Saw in America, Chesterton observes that America is one of the few nations—if possibly the only nation at that time—that is both democratic and dogmatic. Democratic in that it is not a monarchy. Dogmatic in that its foundation—the Declaration of Independence—proclaims that there is a God from which all men are created equal and to whom men and government are responsible.
There is, therefore, a peculiarity about America: that while there is separation of Church and State and, indeed, while there is no religious test to assume public office (as is written in Article VI of the US Constitution), America is nevertheless religious—religious not in that it holds to one particular religion or even that its elected officials and citizens believe and are affiliated with a religion, but that, at our American heart, we hold to a Creed. And that American Creed begins: “We hold these truths to be self-evident…” As that Creed focuses on God, the Creator, as the source of our rights, the American Creed can be said to be religious.
American Catholics, for their part, hold to that American Creed while also saying another Creed that begins: “I believe in one God.”
The important part here is that Chesterton observes that America is founded upon a Creed that has a religious tone.
To understand why this is important, we need to take a moment and reflect upon the nature of a Creed.
One of the peculiarities of a Creed is that it can include everyone and yet can exclude anyone. In Catholic terms, the Catholic Creed is the fisherman’s net that can bring in fish—people—of any kind. The Catholic can be a white person or a black person, a rich person or a poor person, an old person or a young person, and so on. But the net brings them all in. Yet, that net is defined: you are either in the net or you are not in the net (you can’t be simultaneously entangled in it and also free from it). That definition or shape of the net is determined by the Creed—the Creed which is said at Mass and which is clearly articulated in its more precise definitions through the perennial teaching of the Church (readily found in the Universal Catechism). It is that definition that consequently determines who is in the net and who is not. To be Catholic, therefore, means to be in the net—which necessarily means assent to the Catholic Creed.
In American terms (and to use Chesterton’s analogy here), to be an American means to be in the great Melting Pot. Like the fisherman’s net, anybody can be in that Melting Pot: white or black, rich or poor, old or young, foreigner or national. But to actually be in the Melting Pot means that such a person must fall inside the limits of that Pot’s shape. The shape of the Pot, like the shape of the fisherman’s net, is defined by the American Creed. Thus, to be an American, you must believe the American Creed upon which the founding of our country is based: that God created us and made us equal and so on. Interestingly, the “rite of Citizenship” to become an American citizen is, in many ways and degrees, akin to the Rite of Christian Initiation to become a Catholic. Both require the person to assent to a Creed.
The problem facing our culture today—both in our Nation and in our Church—is that there are those who think that they can change the Creed—Catholic or American—or, worse, to think that assent to a Creed is no longer deterministic of being a Catholic or an American. We hear people saying, “I can be a Catholic while also approving actions that are totally outside of and contrary to her Creed.” Or, in the case of an American, we hear some saying, “I can be an American while also approving actions and political systems that are totally contrary to the country’s founding.”
These problems are, at root (whether people know it or not), an attempt to not only deform the shape of the melting pot and the fisherman’s net, but to discard them altogether: in effect, to melt down the pot itself. A simple but most important conclusion can be made here: America without her Creed is no longer America, just like Catholicism without her Creed is no longer Catholicism.
Our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ, when faced with a malicious crowd who was trying to ensnare Him in the religious and political events of the day, took a coin and said those famous words: “Repay to Caesar what belongs to Caesar. And repay to God what belongs to God.”
The key words here are “repay…” and “what belongs…” To repay means to give back what was given. And “what belongs” implies that, what was given, wasn’t mine.
In saying this, Jesus holds up a coin. It had an image of Caesar. And because it has the image of Caesar, it goes to Caesar. But what has the image of God? You do. I do. Imprinted on your soul and on my soul is God’s image. And so the coins in good citizenship belong to Caesar; you and I, however, belong to God.
In the case of America, where Her Creed assents to God, what we give here in good citizenship and in good faith are necessarily and closely aligned. The Roman Empire of Caesar wasn’t founded upon God; so, coins to Caesar. But our America was founded as “one nation under God.” So: the question needs to be answered: what are we to repay to America?
I, as a Catholic and an American, who have received these great loans of faith and country, must pay back what I have received by offering the coins of my own assent.
This is the requirement of those who call themselves Catholic and American. Catholic Americans give assent to two Creeds which have at their founding, God.
In that assent, we pray for our country and we also pray for the holiness of our brother and sister Catholics—most especially those who are called to bear the Cross of public service.
But, in addition to our prayers, we are called to help our brothers and sisters—both in their task of being good citizens of this country and of being good citizens of God’s Kingdom. As such, Catholic Americans have always held accountable our elected officials, but we have always and especially held accountable our Catholic elected officials; for, a Catholic American elected official bears the weight not only of serving our country, but also of serving God. Indeed, given the nature of America, only in serving God (ie, repaying what belongs to Him) does the official well-serve America. This is the point of the first reading about Cyrus and God telling him, a leader of Israel, that Cyrus’ position comes from God—and there is no other.
Here, we may conclude by answer what authentic Catholic American assent looks like.
First: authentic assent requires that we not only know our Catholic faith and our country’s laws and foundation (which itself does require sacrificial effort on our part—or great trust), but also that we give an actual and not mere nominal or notional assent. That is, we must go beyond being Catholics—and Americans—in name only.
Second: we pray for good Catholic Americans to persevere in the faith in the discharge of their office and we pray for more good Catholic Americans to undertake the cross of public service for the greater glory of God. We also pray for the conversion of elected officials who are not Catholic but who nevertheless uphold the American Creed that our Lord may direct their governance to his greater glory and the salvation of their souls.
Third: as simply good Americans who assent to her Creed, we also avoid supporting those running for office who do not similarly assent; for we know the exercise of their office would deform the melting pot and thus America.
Fourth: most especially, as good Catholic Americans we avoid supporting those Catholics running for office who do not assent to the Catholic Creed and all its impacts upon morality, the dignity of the human person, and, by extension, our God who upholds our nation; for, if a Catholic official cannot repay what belongs to God here, how are they going to repay what belongs to America?
This is the challenge of the Gospel. And it is a challenge. But the coins of our assent are what you and I owe to God.