What is America? by Charles A. Coulombe


Nothing reflects the strangely mixed nature of our country so much as the uniquely American way of celebrating Christmas. The Christmas Tree is German; Santa Claus, via Clement Moore, Thomas Nast, the old New York Sun, and Coca-Cola, Dutch; holly and mistletoe are English; and the Nativity Scene ultimately Italian. Depending on where you live, English plum pudding, eggnog, and tom-and-jerries may take their place beside Mexican tamales, Neapolitan fish dishes, French buche-de-Noel and our own turkey and pumpkin pie atop Yuletide tables. The American Christmas songbook erupts into a virtual United Nations and World Council of Churches combined: the Church herself contributed O Come All Ye Faithful; The First Nowell and God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen came from English, Angels We Have Heard on High and O Holy Night from French, and Silent Night from Austrian Catholics. Away in a Manger is attributed (some say falsely) to Martin Luther, Hark! the Herald Angels Sing was written by John Wesley’s brother, Charles, O Little Town of Bethlehem by the Episcopal Bishop of Boston, Philips Brooks, and It Came upon the Midnight Clear by the Unitarian clergyman, Edmund Sears. Peculiar to this country are the non-religious Christmas songs, starting with such hits as Santa Claus is Coming to Town and White Christmas, and culminating in the likes of Grandma Got Run Over by a Reindeer.

What has this barrage of holiday cheer to do with our publisher’s question, “What is the American ‘Pays Reel?’” A great deal, actually. As he so well reminded us, since their respective revolutions, the Catholic nations of the world have been divided by two countries sharing a single territorial space — the one Catholic and Monarchist (or Spanish/Portuguese, in Latin America), and the other anti-clerical and republican. But our country is, in itself, the product of a revolt against a Monarchy, itself Protestant and — especially at the time — almost as anti-Catholic as the rebels (the “almost” is important to us Catholics because of the Quebec Act and the firstEmancipation Act in Britain).

Since then, as every schoolboy knows, a sort of civil religion of America has grown up, in which almost everyone here (to include the vast majority of Catholics) is a communicant. It has its sacred history comprising an old covenant — the Pilgrim Fathers’ — and a new one, brought us by the Founding Fathers. This faith has its own sacred relics: the Liberty Bell, the original Declaration of Independence, the Star Spangled Banner, and so on. There are major feast days — Independence Day, Thanksgiving, Memorial Day, Veterans Day — and lesser ones, such as Presidents’ Day, Martin Luther King Day, Flag Day, and Constitution Day. There are, moreover, sacred shrines: Independence Hall, the Freedom Trail, Lexington and Concord, Valley Forge, Arlington National Cemetery, Plymouth Rock, Mount Vernon, Monticello, the Washington, Jefferson, and Lincoln Monuments in Washington, Mount Rushmore, the White House, the Capitol, and so forth. As befits any major religion, there is even a schism from the national faith — the “Lost Cause” of the Confederacy, with its own shrines and observances.


Now, to be sure, most modern regimes have such practices and sites reflecting their pride in their history; moreover, patriotism is a religious as well as a natural virtue. Of course, in formerly Catholic nations a similar secular set of observances are often designed to supplant the previous religious and royal ones: as Dom Gueranger rather caustically remarked, “The Assumption then will always be the national feast of France, except for those of her sons who celebrate the anniversaries of revolutions and assassinations,” in reference to Bastille Day. But in our country what makes our observance unique is that it traditionally carried with it a set of tacit dogmas: an undefined “freedom” takes the place of salvation; we Americans are a chosen people, designed by God or Providence or the Great Architect as an example for all other peoples (think of what “Un-American” means, as opposed to “Un-” French or Italian); we are the “shining city on the hill,” “the last, best hope of mankind.” What most of us hold unconsciously the Mormons enunciate as doctrine.

The practical result for us is that in America, traditionally, the pays reel and the pays legal have been the same — and what is legal is accepted for the most part as moral by the majority of our citizenry. Hence, once adopted by the elites and imposed through governmental fiat — legislative, executive, or most effectively, judicial — opposition to easy divorce, contraceptives, abortion, and same-sex marriage has collapsed.

To be fair, this situation is mirrored somewhat in the other Protestant nations — since the Reformation, the Anglican, Lutheran, or Reformed churches of Northern Europe and the Commonwealth have mobilized the spiritual identities of their nations behind whatever those in power have wanted — hence the same lack of division between the real and legal countries in those places.


But our condition is unique; not only did those religious organisations have set doctrines, such as they were, they did not serve simply to elevate the country in the minds of its denizens. Our civil cult, however, was created for just that purpose — and was in a sense necessary for that goal, given that no one Protestant sect was dominant here. Buttressing it, however, was a shared moral code, common alike to Protestants, Catholics, and Jews. The single major division that occurred during our history — the War between the States — featured two sides that appealed to the same basic principles; hence the design of the Great Seal of the Confederacy.

This conflation of the real with the legal lasted until the 1960s. That decade shattered the moral unanimity that had made the American civil religion possible — a development reflected also in the rest of Protestant Christendom. In those countries (save to a degree Germany, whose experience during two world wars had already altered the Reformation settlement) the 60s and subsequent decades saw the national elites embrace moralities their elders would have condemned, downgrade or abolish traditional political and social structures, encourage non-European immigration, and, in the name of welcoming their new neighbors, suppress national mores, as well as force “their” churches to bless it all. A rift occurred, in a manner similar to that in Catholic countries. The machinery of government was (and is) in the hands of those committed to transforming their nations into something new and strange — the pays legal. Those who to whatever degree opposed this alteration were the pays reel. Of course, this opposition can range, in the case of Britain, from the charming — as with the varied proponents of “Merry England” — to the frightening, as with some elements of the National Front. The same phenomenon is at work in the Netherlands, Northern Germany, Protestant Switzerland, and Scandinavia, with groups like the Oranjebond on one side, and different varieties of skinheads on the other. Beyond these folk, however, there is a larger block of people concerned with simply holding on to various elements of their countries’ traditional lives and practices. The European Landowners’ Association, Europa Nostra, CILANE,European Federation of Hunters’ Associations, and European Historic Houses, for example, unite across the continent national organisations intent on preserving various aspects of their respective inheritance.

In America, this process has required some retooling of the dogmas of the national cult on the part of its current managers. Whereas before, public expressions of “Americanism” inevitably celebrated the country as it is, elevating the historical past — and especially the Revolution — to a great good because it produced what we have now, visits to the national shrines today involve exposure to multi-media shows that tell a different story. In the current dispensation, the “War of Independence” was a military conflict that merely ushered in the ongoing “American Revolution” — which has continued to the present through the different stages of abolitionism, labour rights, civil rights, women’s rights, and now gay rights.


So much for the pays legal in this country – but what of the pays reel? To start, we have to look quickly at our past. Every Catholic American knows — or should know — of the Spanish and French colonisation and evangelisation that initially opened our continent. But for all of that (and as one whose French ancestors came to Quebec in the 17th century and who lives in a city and state founded by Charles III of Spain, I am very aware of it), this is an English-speaking country, and its culturally dominant roots are the British Thirteen Colonies. In that context, while the Maryland (and its Kentucky offshoot) Catholic tradition is important to the early history of the Church in this country, it was not a major influence in the creation of the American identity. The Puritans and other English, Pennsylvania, Piedmont, and Palatine Germans, Knickberbocker Dutch, Ulster Scots, and French Huguenots played a far larger role. The creation myth of the revolution offered such as Charles and Daniel Carroll, Stephen Moylan, and John Barry as important individual Catholics on the rebel side — but among the Loyalists were the Roman Catholic Volunteers, the Volunteers of Ireland, and the Loyal Irish Volunteers. Of course, the defeated Loyalists went off to become the mythic building blocks of three other countries: Anglo-Canada, the Bahamas, and Sierra Leone.

After Independence, while such writers as Noah Webster and the Transcendentalists were constructing the afore-mentioned national faith — necessary, in a sense, for such a diverse populace — others more or less quietly questioned the national consensus, and attempted to figure out our country’s place in the wider scope of Western civilisation. Washington Irving, James Fenimore Cooper, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Edgar Allan Poe, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, and a number of other writers sought to explore existing American themes of history, folklore and the like while remembering the Mother Continent from which all of this had ultimately sprung; the Hudson River School did much the same in painting. While this latter group of writers and artists tended to be rather friendlier to Catholicism than was the norm, the hatred of such as the Know-Nothings also emerged during this time. It was encountering these attitudes in the army during the Mexican War that led to the formation of the San Patricio Battalion by Irish-American deserters. But, despite the best efforts at conversion by such as Fr. John Thayer and Orestes Brownson, it was the waves of Catholic Irish and German immigration to America, starting in the 1840s, that really put the Church onto the American map.

The Civil War; massive immigration thereafter; final defeat of the Indian tribes and settlement of the frontier by a crazy quilt of ethnic groups; Black emancipation, Reconstruction, and Jim Crow; industrialization and the creation of extremes of wealth and poverty (and mansions and tenements thereby); the Spanish-American War and the United States’ emergence as an empire of its own; the Two World Wars and the Depression; the Cold War against Communism and the Quiet Revolution of the 1960s — all of these left their marks in different ways upon every religious and ethnic group, and every region and town in the country. Bear in mind that all of this drama was worked out against some of the most extraordinary scenery on the planet.


From this seemingly chaotic history came everything that the rest of the World has happily imbibed from America and tried to imitate: Jazz, the American Songbook, cocktails, the Broadway Musical, Big Bands, Rock-and-Roll, Hollywood movies, the Hippie Movement, the New Age, television, and, of course, the Internet. But notice that these quintessentially American phenomena have been primarily powered by three relatively marginal groups: Blacks, Jews, and Catholics.

How then, in the midst of this farrago of action and diversity, of truth and falsehood, of innocence and horror, do we find the American pays reel? To start with, we must keep this complexity in mind. The narrative of a single America, defined by the flag and the pursuit of happiness, is at the very least incomplete. In this country of ours, we have the whole planet contained. Every town and country is an extraordinary mixture of things — and that is what is real about us, rather than the national ideology: not the Fourth of July, but the Fourth of July as celebrated in San Francisco or Lowell, Massachusetts, or Lindsborg Kansas. It is the streets of Boston and the hovels of Appalachia set amidst incredible scenery. It is Southern hospitality and the wreckage of the Rust Belt,Bluegrass music, all the varieties of Clam Chowder, California plein-air and Creole cuisine. It is New England’s town meetings and New Mexico’s pueblos, “paw-paw French” and Gullah. It is Indian Reservations, Chinatowns, and Little Italies, Beaux Art post offices and Classical courthouses. It is Gothic revival churches and Arts-and-Crafts historic homes. It is the Rocky Mountains and VFW Halls. It is the Knights of Columbus museum in New Haven, and the Masonic museum in Alexandria. It is what the National Park Service, the National Trust for Historic Preservation, the Nature Conservancy, and all the State and local Parks services, historical societies, and museums try to keep for and share with the citizenry. For good or ill, America’s pays reel is the country seen from the bottom up rather than the top down; seen in this light, the Capitol Building is more real than Congress, and the rituals there of the Sergeants-at-Arms of the House and Senate with the mace of the former becomes of greater interest than the endless debates. Our pays reel is quite as difficult to comprehend as everything else about our nation.


What, then, is the believing Catholic to make of this kaleidoscope of persons, places, and things in which is mixed together so much good and so much evil? What does his Faith require of him regarding the vast circus tent that makes up our own pays reel? First of all, that he love it. This is the country that sheltered our ancestors or ourselves — moreover, that God from all eternity decided that we should be born or arrive in. But this love must be neither ignorant — we need to know our national history, culture, folklore, and civics; nor uncritical — all of these things must be evaluated in the light of the Faith. Moreover, we must cultivate a love and knowledge of our country in both its local context and as a potential part of Christendom. We particularly should know and pray to our American Catholic Saints — and make them better known, as well as the Servants of God this nation has produced.

But this is not enough. Our position here is far from uncommon across the globe — Catholic minorities live under non-Catholic majorities on every continent. In some countries — China, India, Korea, Vietnam, and Japan come to mind — non-Christian religious beliefs and customs are part and parcel of national identity. So how would a good Japanese Catholic, say, deal with the issues we are examining? Well, he ought to venerate the Japanese martyrs, needless to say, and make visits to their shrines at Nagasaki and Shimabara Castle. He should research such converts as Admiral Shinjiro Yamamoto. But how is he to love his country? To know it, yes — its cultural and natural sites and its impressive customs; these are Japan’s pays reel. He must also discern how to appreciate, say, the beauty of the Ise Shrine, without partaking in its Shinto worship or belief; to pray for and be loyal to the Emperor without regarding His Imperial Majesty as his religious leader. Needless to say, he must oppose all those forces in Japan that favour further demographic decline, and fulfill his civic duties faithfully. Yet none of these are enough. They are means to an end — the conversion of all Japan to the one True Faith. A Japanese Catholic who truly loves his country will work for this, by prayer, by evangelizing where possible, by example — perhaps even by becoming expert at performing the Tea Ceremony!

So it is for us Catholic Americans who claim to love our country. We must identify the true America that lies under the surface of civic religion and judicial mandate, and, inspired by a true and deep patriotism, work and pray for its conversion. At the moment, the pays reel lies around us like a disorganized quarry filled with beautiful but unconnected stones. It is wonderful material, but it needs the Faith to bring it to life. God placed each of us here for that purpose.


Charles A. Coulombe

For more information about Mr. Coulombe


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