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Chesterton’s Stars & Stripes

Among those doing excellent work on G. K. Chesterton is Joseph Pearce, the brilliant Brit who is a scholar at Ave Maria University in Naples, Florida. Pearce, like Dale Ahlquist, is unearthing all sorts of gems from Chesterton’s writings.

Pearce recently came to Grove City College in Western Pennsylvania, where he offered an intriguing European perspective on American exceptionalism (click here for video). Among the Europeans that Pearce was sure to include was Chesterton—and what he said is fascinating. In my view, it’s as poignant as the richest lines on America from Frenchman Alexis de Tocqueville.

Pearce notes how when it came to America, Britain, the West, and Christianity, Chesterton, as usual, was ahead of his time. He foresaw a faith in rapid decline in Western Europe, and felt it might be left to America to pick up the torch for Christendom. Hilaire Belloc, a friend of Chesterton, famously remarked that Europe is the faith and the faith is Europe. That was true then, but not today.

As a stunning symbol of Chesterton’s thinking, Pearce highlights what he dubs Chesterton’s “salute to the American flag,” a salute signifying Chesterton’s hope that America might become a beacon of Christianity worldwide. Lamenting that “the English have often forgotten the cross on their flag,” Chesterton hoped that “the crossless flag” of the United States “may yet become a symbol of something; by whose stars we are illumined, and by whose stripes we are healed.” (G. K. Chesterton, Collected Works, Vol. XXI, Ignatius Press, 1990, p. 591.)

Wow. Think about that line: “by whose stars we are illumined, and by whose stripes we are healed.” Have you ever thought about your flag that way—so Christ-like? G. K. Chesterton did. It’s a stirring interpretation of America and its mission.

America and Europe have gone in opposite directions faith-wise. Despite our serious problems—the Death Culture chief among them—the vast majority of Americans remain believers, and Christians, and we provide more missionaries than any country; including to Europe. 

As we again mark the birth of America’s founding, may those stars still illumine, and may those stripes still heal.


Paul Kengor is professor of political science and executive director of the Center for Vision & Values at Grove City College. He is also co-author (with Patricia Clark Doerner) of The Judge: William P. Clark, Ronald Reagan's Top Hand (Ignatius Press, 2007).
  • Margaret Thatcher said: “Europe was created by history. America was created by philosophy.” There was a United States of Europe once. It was called Christendom. Sometime after Thomas Aquinas finished his Summa Europe’s focus began to change from the pursuit of things eternal to the pursuit of things temporal, to the enjoyment of the material riches created by centuries of Christian order. In time that change reached the core of Europe’s spirit. The German Reformation arrived and challenged the ancient vision of the Church, the nature of authority, the purpose of obedience.

    The fruits of the Reformation were soon made evident in the French Revolution, the Weimar Republic, Marxism, Communism… Europe’s slow death by ideas progresses even to this day.

    Just a few years before the French Revolutionaries killed the King of France, the American Revolution triumphed with some help from the French Catholic crown. Our revolution was a reluctant revolution against a Parliament that already had destroyed Ireland because of her obstinate catholicity. Ireland was a nation under God who refused to be a nation under a human king demanding godlike obedience.

    It was very present in the mind of our Founding Fathers that we could go the way of Ireland if we did not arrest the growing signs of oppression coming from Parliament. And so, in a subtle way, the American Revolution was a statement in favor of the universal brotherhood of man, a catholic revolution of sorts. It remains a unique milepost in the history of mankind.

    In our land we do not have a king who is head of a state church. God is in Heaven, we are under His rule, constitutionally so. That idea is at the core of the American Revolution.

    Chesterton intuition saw in the American flag a symbol of hope lost even to the Britain that should have inherited the catholic sentiments of Edward the Confessor and the crusader king Richard the Lionhearted but succumbed to the folly of Henry VIII.

    Now Europe is going way past that point trying to be a (sort of) Christendom without Christ and some of her sick ideas have crossed the sea and have infected the American soil. Yet I think the destiny of America is to save Europe from herself. It has happened two times and this third time it may happen in a slightly different way (a less bloody way I hope.)

    Only God knows how we are going to surmount the perils we face now. Europe may have been the Faith once but now the Faith lives here in this nation under God, this band of brothers who are not united by common ancestry or mere geography but by the conviction that God has endowed man with certain inalienable rights life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. If the happiness that the American people pursue is spiritual happiness under God, then this happy realm will last for a long, long time.

  • noelfitz

    Paul Kengor claims
    “America and Europe have gone in opposite directions faith-wise. Despite our serious problems—the Death Culture chief among them—the vast majority of Americans remain believers, and Christians, and we provide more missionaries than any country; including to Europe. ”

    There are still some Catholics left in Europe, but unfortunately, I have to agree with Paul. Perhaps we will get a few missionaries from the US to Ireland to sort us out. In other times we gave missionaries to America.

    Carlos,

    it is great to have you here.

    I do not know if I agree with you on all things, but many things you say are very thought-provoking.

    Your summary of European and Irish history may not be fully accurate.

    You also say the American Revolution was “a catholic revolution of sorts”. Again I wonder. The founding fathers might not be considered very pro-Catholic, with the exception of Charles Carroll.

    I read (http://blog.beliefnet.com/stevenwaldman/2008/04/how-anticatholicism-helped-fue.html):

    But as we focus this week on the role of Catholics in America, it’s worth remembering just how loathed Catholics were at the founding of this nation.
    Indeed, to an extent rarely acknowledged anti-Catholicism helped fuel the American revolution.
    If that sounds harsh, consider the evidence (plucked from my new book, Founding Faith):
    Only three of the 13 colonies allowed Catholics to vote. All new England colonies except Rhode island and the Carolinas prohibited Catholics form holding office; Virginia would have priests arrested for entering the colony; Catholic schools were banned in all states except Pennsylvania.

    Anyway, I wish y’all a great day on 4 July.

  • I doubt that my summary of European history is wrong, mainly because I learned it from better heads than mine. The idea that the Reformation is at the root of all the Liberal movements that appeared in the last five centuries is not mine. I can assure you that. Of course if one reads some actual serious history… the case for that is presented over and over from many different angles and by many different authors.

    About the time of the Stamp Act Rebellion the case of Ireland was already a warning to Americans, most specifically the period after the enactment of the Penal Laws. It is amply quoted in revolutionary papers from the time of the Stamp Act all the way to the days of the Revolution. That may have been the reason many chose to fight instead of trusting the English crown to resolve the matters justly.

    The American Revolution also had an effect in the relationship between the Crown and Ireland: the Catholic Relief Act was passed in 1792 at a time when England could not afford to continue to suppress Catholics by force (guess why.) Many had taken the side of the Revolution along with Polish and French troops. The French and Polish soldiers whose help decided the contest in our favor were all Catholics. That alone made Catholics more likeable to many in America. It was not easy but it got much better rather quickly. Although some anti-catholic prejudices survive to this day.

    I don’t know where you get your information about such harsh treatment of Catholics in America. George Washington himself used to study from a book written by Jesuits who were around the northern parts of Virginia, and Ohio about a century before he was born. A Jesuit priest is reported to have been at Mount Vernon at the time of GW’s death.
    It was not easy for Catholics and there was persecution but this was not England by any means. Washington himself prohibited the celebration of Guy Fawkes Day and the burning of the Pope in effigy.

    Before 1792, several relief laws have been passed allowing Ireland to export cattle and other goods to England, for example. Unbelievable as it may seem to you the American Revolution cast a shadow on the politics of the British Empire.

    Notice that I used the “small c” catholic to say that the American Revolution was a “catholic revolution of sorts” because it went back to the concept of God above the realm of politics, a concept that was lost to Christendom after the German Reformation. The “nation under God” concept is a Catholic concept.

    George Washington’s Vision published 50 years before Fatima.

    • noelfitz

      Carlos,
      I did say it is great to have you here. You liven things up, and your reply to me here is impressive.

      In your original post you wrote “Ireland was a nation under God who refused to be a nation under a human king demanding godlike obedience.” This is a debatable point, as it depends on the definition of “nation” and the rise of the “nation state”.

      But academic minutiae of this type are far from the thoughts of Prof Kenkor.

      So Carlos, again, many thanks for your lively, provocative and robust contributions.

      We could do with more.