This summer, with many people tethered close to home, Disney+ decided to release a recording of “Hamilton,” the acclaimed Broadway musical.
It was a wise decision, and not just from a business perspective. Our nation, after all, is at an inflection point. Spiraling polarization, an out-of-control epidemic and anger about racial injustice can easily cause many to wonder whether the American project is dead.
Are we, in the end, a failed state? Have our differences and individualism overwhelmed the ideals of our founding?
Admittedly, we will not know the answer to that question for a while. The death of nations is more like that of a red giant sun than a supernova. But as Christians, we certainly know that we have no permanent home in this world. No human enterprise, however worthy or well intentioned, lasts forever. We are citizens of a more lasting commonwealth, brought to earth in the person of Jesus Christ, the eternal Son of God.
“Hamilton” reminds us both of the fragile nature of the American experiment and its inspiring promise. Alexander Hamilton — the man and the character — embodies this dual reality in himself. He himself was a man on the make, a brilliant and nakedly ambitious man who worked tirelessly for what he thought to be right. The play does not shy away from his personality flaws and his outright crimes.
As we have been reminded this summer, the United States too has dealt with recurring defects from the beginning of her story. Today, as in the past, this American tendency to mistreat minorities, the vulnerable and the voiceless threatens the social order and makes the soaring rhetoric about our country seem disingenuous.
In short, throughout our history, many people have experienced a sharp contrast between the American Ideal and their American Reality.
Hamilton’s loyal service to George Washington — he was like a father to Hamilton — is one of the highlights of the play for me. Washington, as the play recognizes, was in some ways the truly great man of the American Revolution, next to whom the other founders seemed supporting characters. Yet, as many have quietly pointed out this summer, Washington owned hundreds of slaves.
Is the solution, then, to tear down the Washington Monument, as some rioters apparently wanted to do earlier in this pandemic summer?
I believe not. Instead, I believe “Hamilton” provides us a clear picture of a path forward. First, we need to recognize the fundamental rightness of the American principle, enshrined in the immortal second sentence of the Declaration of Independence. Next, we need to acknowledge that the men who signed their names to that document were very imperfect in carrying out those principles, in both the public and private spheres. Finally, we need to put forward honest, sincere solutions to the challenges of our time.
No country has ever gotten it right. Every government, as St. Augustine says, merely approximates true justice. Nevertheless, some do so better than others. What we must do, then, is prevent a descent into chaos, and build the necessary bridges to help us live together in peace and preserve the goodness at the heart of the United States.
As Catholics, we must do our part to ensure that those who have been left behind historically in our country receive their due. We should do this out of love for our flawed but beautiful country. And we should do it because we are citizens of another, more permanent one.
Father Eric J. Banecker is parochial administrator of St. Francis de Sales Parish, Philadelphia.
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