My pastor, who is a fine priest and whom I love dearly, in a homily a couple of weeks ago referred to the United States of America as the "greatest nation in the world." He did so in passing, while denouncing capital punishment: "even in this, the greatest nation in the world, we commit the atrocious sin of executing criminals."
As an aside, while I am against capital punishment, I find his vehement opposition curious. He supports the war in Iraq, after all. How one can consider it an atrocity to execute convicted murderers while regarding the deaths of Iraqi civilians as acceptable "collateral damage" is beyond me. Even in killing enemy combatants we are most often killing some poor blighter uprooted from his dusty village by the local draft board, not a conscious and intentional murderer. In short, while I oppose executing criminals, it is pretty far down on my list of moral outrages.
But it was Father’s reference to the United States as the "greatest nation in the world," not his mention of the death penalty that caught my ear. I doubt the statement bothered anyone else in the congregation, aside from a young man who lives at the local Catholic Worker house. After all, we have heard the phrase since we were small children; it is a vital part of the American Creed.
But what could this statement possibly mean? Does the Christian who makes this claim suppose that this country has created a culture that uniquely glorifies God, that makes contemplation easier, virtue more readily attained? I trust this question answers itself.
Or is it claimed that America has achieved greatness in its religious art, architecture and music? While Americans have indeed created beautiful religious works, those works are in the end, aside from African-American spirituals, mostly derivative, most accurately European in style.
What then could he mean? Many will answer this by pointing to American religious freedom. While it is true that there is relative freedom of religion in this country, there is also a mostly unspoken understanding that this is to exist only in the private realm. In Poland, under communism, for example, public schools had crucifixes on classroom walls. Religious instruction took place within school walls. Try that in the most Catholic town in the U.S., in New Mexico, say, or Pennsylvania and see how much freedom we have.
It is similar with our other freedoms. Truly, there are many countries with fewer freedoms, and more egregious human rights violations, but it is also true that we are not unique in possessing the freedoms we have. ("America: not the worst country in the world"; now there’s a motto I could get behind.)
In fact, I can think of only one area where the U.S. possesses unrivaled greatness: that of raw military power. Surely the Christian cannot be affirming that it is in this that America’s status as "greatest" resides.
In saying all this I am not committing the opposite error, that of saying that America is uniquely evil, the worst nation on earth. While it is true that the U.S. is a great force for evil in the contemporary world, the largest exporter of weaponry, pornography, and a soul-killing popular culture, it is our military and economic power that permits this scale of evil, not some weird genetic predisposition to immorality.
Nor am I denying that is a good and natural thing to love one’s country. One can easily imagine an Irishman, or a Pole, or an Ethiopian holding that his is the most beautiful, or the dearest, or the most blessed country on earth. How comical it would be to hear him claim that it is the greatest.
Indeed, the notion that their nation is the greatest has existed in only a handful of peoples: the Romans, the Aztecs, the British, the Germans, the Russians. In each of these instances greatness has been perceived as bearing the obligation to carry its blessing to other peoples, by force if necessary.
If that sounds familiar it should: we 21st century Americans are in the grips of a messianic imperialism, the kind that has gripped segments of humanity from time to time.
And I fear we are in for the same kind of rude awakening as the other erstwhile saviors of mankind.