The vagaries of scheduling put me in Europe for the week before the November 4 election. In conversations in both Rome and Cracow, I was struck by the frequency with which friends and colleagues said that Americans would be electing the leader of the world, not just the leader of the United States. Why did they say this? It’s not because such sentiments reflect a realist appraisal of the facts of American power, although the people with whom I spoke were well enough aware of that—and grateful for it. Rather, the idea that Americans would be electing the world’s leader bespoke their convictions that, unlike Europe, America is not morally exhausted, and that America can still embody a nobler, more humane idea of freedom.
In light of our election results, some might well ask whether such sentiments are misplaced. Or forget, if you can, the election, and consider the fact that one of America’s most lucrative exports is pornography; what does that say about us as a culture? On the other hand, my friends and colleagues are well aware of what’s what in the United States—and they nonetheless insist that America is the world’s leader.
The late John Paul II had a similar view of America. When he came to the papacy in 1978, he had, I think, a typical European intellectual’s idea of the United States as a bit raw, a bit vulgar, and not all-that-interesting culturally. The life of the mind, Cardinal Karol Wojtyla seemed convinced, was far livelier in Europe, on both sides of the iron curtain, than it was in the American republic. But Wojtyla-become-John-Paul-II began to change his thinking, perhaps during his first extended encounter with the United States as pope, in October 1979.
And over the years, John Paul came to understand that America had a spiritual vitality that old Europe lacked – a spiritual vitality that had infused at least some American intellectuals with a contemporary idea of freedom virtually identical to the pope’s own. Thus, in the aftermath of the Cold War, John Paul encouraged his fellow-Poles and other citizens of the new democracies of east central Europe to establish contacts with U.S. Catholics in order to build a trans-Atlantic community of conversation and action in defense of freedom rightly understood.
John Paul II gave voice to his mature appreciation of the United States, and his convictions about the challenges before us, in a December 1997 address, delivered when he received the credentials of Lindy Boggs as the new U.S. ambassador to the Holy See:
“No expression of today’s [American] commitment to liberty and justice for all can be more basic than the protection offered to those in society who are most vulnerable. The United States of America was founded on the conviction that an inalienable right to life was a self-evident moral truth, fidelity to which was a primary criterion of social justice. The moral history of your country is the story of your people’s efforts to widen the circle of inclusion in society, so that all Americans might enjoy the protection of law, participate in the responsibilities of citizenship, and have the opportunity to make a contribution to the common good. Whenever a certain category of people—the unborn or the sick and old—are excluded from that protection, a deadly anarchy subverts the original understanding of justice. The credibility of the United States will depend more and more on its promotion of a genuine culture of life, and on a renewed commitment to building a world in which the weakest and most vulnerable are welcomed and protected.”
The “moral history” of America: that is what we ought to ponder at Thanksgiving. For America is, was, and always will be a moral experiment—an experiment in our capacity to live freedom nobly. As my European friends intuited prior to our election, the results of that experiment will shape the whole world. So let us pray, this Thanksgiving, with Katherine Lee Bates,
“America, America, may God thy gold refine
‘Til all success be nobleness, and ev’ry gain divine.”