In the narrative of human history, the United States has received a unique abundance of divine blessings. This inheritance has allowed for the birth of a nation that is grounded on life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Based on these principles, it is one nation under God.
But what is happening to the United States? A simple glance reveals to us: Authority is mocked, maliciousness is sanctioned, the common good has become a battlefield, trust is eclipsed by suspicion, and public discourse is replaced by name-calling and identity politics.
Where is all this leading?
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Again, a passing observation shows us: Tension is increasing, polemics are intensifying, and harassment is being advocated. People of good will are legitimately wondering if the United States is entering a dark age. Citizens and families are concerned about safety and social harmony. Are we falling apart? Can we get along?
Historically, a dark age is not when the lights go out, but when they go out and no one notices. The lights of a culture are always going out, in one way or another, and civic leaders are having to constantly and creatively turn the hearts of their people back to these lights and remind the public conscience of why they are needed.
With this observation in mind, where can the leaders of American culture and politics turn to re-establish peace in society? Some will recommend deeper trenches or more aggressive maneuvers in public interaction, but such approaches will only exacerbate the problems and heighten our divisions.
And so, of the many possible answers to the question of where to turn, the easiest and most obvious answer is the one upon which American culture was originally built, namely, to the teachings of Jesus Christ and the Christian way of life.
This way of life is particularly summarized in what Western culture has come to call “the Beatitudes.” The Beatitudes are the eight counsels for a life lived well given by the Lord Jesus in his Sermon on the Mount. Biblically, the word “beatitude” is a synonym for happiness and blessing.
The word is apropos for us today. If we want happiness, concord among citizens, and peace on earth, then — imitating so many of our Founding Fathers — we should turn to the Beatitudes.
The way of the Beatitudes is a fluid one, each beatitude leading to another one. And so, the first beatitude is a call to poverty of spirit. This is an acknowledgement that we don’t have all the answers. We need God and one another. This leads us to a sorrow over our personal darkness and evil in society. Such a grievance ushers us to meekness, which directs us to hunger and thirst for righteousness in ourselves and in the public forum.
A longing for righteousness fosters in us a spirit of mercy, a purity of heart, and a drive for peace. These movements culminate in fortitude and a willingness to suffer for the sake of righteousness. These are the eight Beatitudes. Their transcendence and practicality indicate how they are the sure path for cultural and societal renewal and a restored civility and social harmony.
The Founders of our great nation turned to the Christian faith.
Such a suggestion shouldn’t provoke anyone of a different religious tradition. The deists of the Founding era of our country welcomed and saw the benefit of the Christian teaching. In the contemporary environment, Jewish and Muslim believers should not be wary, since they will find portions of their own traditions in the Beatitudes. Atheistic citizens do not need to be alarmed since, solely by utilitarian standards, they can see the results of a public life inspired by the Beatitudes.
The lights are flickering in American culture. We are an eminently practical people and so we recognize when things aren’t working and when public discourse and action are weakening. In such a state of affairs, where will we turn?
We are no wiser than the Founders of our great nation. They turned to the Christian faith. The teachings of that faith, especially the Beatitudes, are a reliable and effective option for us. If we turn to this religious and patriotic patrimony, then what these truths did in establishing our nation — they can do again in renewing it.
Fr. Jeff Kirby is the parish priest of Our Lady of Grace Parish in Indian Land, South Carolina. He is the author of “Kingdom of Happiness: Living the Beatitudes in Everyday Life” (Saint Benedict Press).
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