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Patriotism or Peace? Part 2

By John Gillespie, M.Ed., MLA

This is Part 2 of a serial publication on Thomas Merton’s influence on the Catholic Church’s Pilgrimage to Pacem in Terris. Read Part 1. To get the remainder of the series delivered directly to your inbox, be sure to subscribe.

Pro Deo et Patria

The atomic bomb changed everything. Not only did it bring the war in the Pacific to decisive end, but in doing so, had also signaled to the Soviet Union that the United States was not power with which to trifle.

With the global realignment into the democratic and capitalist oriented West and the totalitarian East, Americans increasingly saw themselves as cast in a larger struggle of literally Biblical proportions. Church membership doubled between 1945 and 1970, with the largest spike between 1950 and 1960.

In 1955, Congress mandated that “In God We Trust” be printed on all currency and a year later, voted to insert the words “Under God” to the Pledge of Allegiance. President Eisenhower summed up the new ecumenical spirit in a 1952 speech to the Four Freedoms Foundation:

…our form of government has no sense unless it is founded in a deeply felt religious faith, and I don’t care what it is. With us of course it is the Judeo-Christian concept, but it must be a religion with all men created equal.”

In all likelihood, the president probably did not care what form American religiosity took. Eisenhower had never been a member of an organized church, and had not ever been baptized.

Thinking this may be a problem at the polls, the evangelical preacher Billy Graham suggested that he undergo the ritual in the Presbyterian Church, on the ground that the denomination was suitably centrist, and unlikely to cause alarm.

The new ecumenical spirit, which was forged not in doctrinal agreement, but in a shared fear of communism, welcomed into the fold America’s Roman Catholics. Not only had a good number of Catholics served in the Second World War, but by midcentury, Catholics held numerous public offices, including 100 seats in Congress.

In 1960, over the protests of numerous Protestants, Americans elected John F. Kennedy, an Irish-American Catholic to the executive office.

To assuage those still apprehensive about Kennedy’s supposed clandestine desire to take his marching orders from Rome, Kennedy publicly assured the Greater Houston Ministerial Association that he believed in an “America where the separation of church and state is absolute,” and that no Catholic prelate would dictate his policy.

Kennedy’s words could not have been better timed. In 1946, moviegoers warmed to Bing Crosby and Ingrid Bergman’s lighthearted portrayal of a priest and a nun in The Bells of St. Mary’s.

Between 1952 and 1957, Bishop Fulton Sheen appeared in full clerical vestments to deliver upbeat, relatively dogma-free sermons on his weekly television program, Life is Worth Living.

At the same time, American Catholic authors such as Flannery O’Connor and Walker Percy appeared at the top of bestseller lists.

When, in 1948, the Trappist monk Thomas Merton published his autobiography, The Seven Story Mountain, Catholics seemed less like the cryptic enemies of the Republic of popular lore, and more like another American denomination – proud banner carriers of Christianity and democracy.

Many Catholic Churches proudly posted above their doors the phrase, Pro Deo et Patria – for God and Country.

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