Feb 13, 2017
“First in war- first in peace- and first in the hearts of his countrymen, he was second to none in the humble and endearing scenes of private life; pious, just, humane, temperate and sincere; uniform, dignified and commanding, his example was as edifying to all around him, as were the effects of that example lasting.” These famous words about George Washington come from the eulogy written by Henry “Light Horse Harry” Lee, who was unanimously chosen by Congress to memorialize our first president. Few of our presidents have lived up to that standard of character. Of course, not every American agreed with George Washington about everything. He had a somewhat bumpy second campaign and term.
What is first in our political hearts? America First? Probably most Americans can agree with those words, but not on what they mean. The words have a history, going back to the years after World War One. Woodrow Wilson had a vision of America as the moral leader of the post-war world, a world conscious of democracy, human rights and self-determination, a world a little rattled by the success of the Communist revolution in Russia. Although that vision was not shared by the politicians of the great powers, it was largely shared by the common peoples of the world. It was something of a shock when in the name of “America First”, the U.S. withdrew into isolation and rejected membership in the League of Nations. What would history have been if we had done otherwise? We’ll never know.
20 years later when it was becoming obvious that the U.S. would need to enter World War II, it was the America First movement that opposed our entry into the war, led by influential people like Charles Lindbergh, who was strangely sympathetic to Nazi Germany. Of course Pearl Harbor made our entry a slam dunk, but in the absence of Pearl Harbor, could we… would we… should we… have stood by in the name of “America First” and watched Japan and the Nazis divide up and enslave the rest of the world?
What does “America First” mean today, in 2017? Does it mean that the US will not cooperate in any international enterprise that has a cost? Does it mean that we must always benefit more than anyone else? If Russia, Britain, France and other nations operate with those same principles, where will that lead us all?
Back in November, as Pope Francis welcomed new Cardinals, he warned about the tendency of populist nationalism to produce an epidemic of animosity. More recently he has stated that this populism can lead to a fascist resurgence, with terrible effects on human rights, democracy and religious freedom. Mussolini and Hitler were both elected to power by their angry and frightened peoples.
Immediately after President Trump’s inauguration, the Pope sent him his greetings, with prayers “that your decisions will be guided by the rich spiritual and ethical values that have shaped the history of the American people and your nation’s commitment to the advancement of human dignity and freedom worldwide.” That is the arena in which America has truly been first and must remain first.
When Pope Francis visited us in September 2015, he reminded us of the fundamentals of Catholic Social Teaching which are fundamentals of our culture at its best. First and foremost is the pursuit of the common good, the good which leaves no one out, and for which we all have a common responsibility. A common good, characterized by solidarity, which leaves no one out must consider medical care, food and housing security, and genuine care for our common home, which is not only the spacious skies, the amber waves of grain, the purple mountain majesties above the fruited plain of the United States but also the whole of the planet earth, our common home. Human rights include the rights of immigrants and refugees; human rights include not only opportunity but distributive justice.
Being truly first is a tall order. Being first is not a matter of bluster or aggression, but a matter of virtue. Jesus taught us that whoever would be first, must be the servant of all. In a real way, America has been the servant of the rest of the world. America has saved the world… three times. It has led the way, pointed the way, taught the way. It is our responsibility, and apparently our destiny.
We must pray and work to keep America First in the world in truth and not succumb to a mythic “America First” that turns its back to the world and in on itself, because that would be an America that would turn on itself.