Who is the King of glory?

A few days ago, in a startling act of blasphemy, Joseph Biden, the second Catholic President of the United States, proclaimed Easter Sunday 2024 to be “Transgender Day of Visibility”. One day, Mr Biden may discover to his disappointment that “God is not mocked” (Gal 6:2). At his inauguration on 20 January 2021, the President observed that “Many centuries ago, Saint Augustine, a saint of my church, wrote that a people was a multitude defined by the common objects of their love. What are the common objects we love that define us as Americans? I think I know. Opportunity. Security. Liberty. Dignity. Respect. Honor. And, yes, the truth.” He omitted to recall that the definition of a people proffered by the Doctor of grace resulted — according to the great bishop — in only two actual peoples: “Two loves formed two cities: the love of self, reaching even to contempt of God, an earthly city; and the love of God, reaching to contempt of self, a heavenly one.” While “truth” might offer some hope of redemption, God is very notable by His absence from President Biden’s list of “common objects we love that define us as Americans”. 

“When the Most High gave to the nations their inheritance, when he divided mankind, he fixed the borders of the peoples according to the number of the sons of God.” 

Deuteronomy 32:8

At some point during the wars initiated by his acclamation as emperor in York on 25 July 306 (probably July 310) Constantine the Great and his armies had a vision of a cross of light brighter than the Sun, and the emperor was told to conquer under that sign. Constantine understood this symbol as a superimposition and rotation of three Xs, signifying a promise of thirty victorious years. Indeed, this would be the duration of his reign (306–337) during which he was without exception triumphant against his mortal enemies. On the eve of the Battle of the Milvian Bridge (fought on 28 October 312), Constantine had a dream in which Christ appeared to him and told him that the symbol he had seen should be drawn as a monogram of the Greek letters Chi and Rho and that it should be borne upon his standards. The following day, Constantine removed the eagles of Jupiter from his standards and replaced them with “the heavenly sign” and rode to victory. Thereafter the Cross and the Christogram fused, in the new Christian Roman standard of the Labarum, became the symbol of the Christian Roman Empire. Eusebius of Caesarea tells us that the Cross struck such terror into Constantine’s enemies that, at the Battle of Chrysopolis, from which he emerged as sole ruler of the Roman world, Constantine’s rival Licinius instructed his troops neither to look at nor approach the Labarum. With one notorious exception, all the emperors after Constantine were Christians of one sort or another and Catholicism was officially adopted as the religion of the Empire in 380. 

“So Simon Peter went aboard and hauled the net ashore, full of large fish, one hundred and fifty-three of them. And although there were so many, the net was not torn.”

John 21:11

The dethroned eagle endured as a sort of heraldic symbol of the Empire on the sceptres of the Consuls, and then later on the banners and arms of medieval Byzantine and Holy Roman Emperors. In time, the heirs of the Christian emperors would extend the reign of Christ across the oceans (bearing this treasure, as ever, in distinctly earthen vessels). The double-headed eagle, symbolic of the western and eastern aspects of the Roman Empire, can be found on the façade of the Cathedral of the Bishop of Santo Domingo in the Dominican Republic — the first See and Primate of the Americas — and above the Spanish Governor’s Palace in San Antonio, Texas. But the armies of Spain marched under the Cross of St Andrew, the armies of France under the Cross of St Michael, and the English under the Cross of St George. As Benedict XVI observed, “as Catholics, in some way we are also all Romans”, and as David prophesied of the Messiah, “he shall rule from sea to sea, and from the river unto the ends of the earth” (Ps 71:8) — from the Atlantic to the Pacific, the Euphrates to the Strait of Gibraltar. This prophecy (see also Zech 9:10, Ps 89:25, et al) is quoted in the motto of Canada and in the lyrics of America the Beautiful

But if the conversion of the Americas accomplished the full temporal extension of the Messianic dominion foretold in scripture, the New World is also the place where that dominion began to wane. Depressingly, the source of this decline was the English colonisation of North America. The interminable character of theological questions under the regime of sola scriptura means that a civil framework contrived under the influence of Protestantism will necessarily devolve in a secularising direction. Once Catholics consent to operate within such a framework, they are perpetually tempted to surrender to its logic. Thus the wretched Peace of Westphalia (1648) initiated the so-called “Enlightenment”, while the desire to be seen as embracing the First Amendment of the US Constitution without qualification forever threatens to transform American Catholics into (in Hamish Fraser’s expression) “Protestants who go to Mass”.

“And another sign appeared in heaven: behold, a great red dragon, with seven heads and ten horns, and on his heads seven diadems. His tail swept down a third of the stars of heaven and cast them to the earth. And the dragon stood before the woman who was about to give birth, so that when she bore her child he might devour it.”

Revelations 12:3–4 

Something that strikes an English Catholic straight away in the US is the presence of the national flag in or immediately adjacent to the sanctuary in Catholic Churches. We are not used to this. It seems rather Anglican. Of course, in Catholic countries, the presence of standards in Churches is perfectly natural. There are such flags in a few Catholic Churches in Britain such as Westminster Cathedral. In its pomp, the Florentine Republic proudly reposed its battle standards in the Baptistry of St John next to the Duomo. In the US, however, it is specifically the national flag almost always flanking the sanctuary with the Papal flag on the opposite side. Even more strikingly, while the flagpole supporting the Papal Flag is usually surmounted by a cross, that supporting the US flag is surmounted by an eagle. In the US, law or custom requires that where multiple flags are hoisted next to each other, the US flag be higher than the rest. Disturbingly, I have come across Catholic institutions where this is still observed even in regard to the Papal flag itself, which is flown noticeably lower than the Stars and Stripes. 

The US flag is a colonial ensign. Originally the colonies in North America flew a red flag with the St George’s Cross in the canton (the upper left-hand corner). After the Act of Union in 1707, this was replaced with the old Union Flag (without the St Patrick’s Cross for Ireland which was added to the Union Flag in 1801 a quarter of a century after US independence). After the eruption of the quarrel between the Thirteen Colonies and the government of George III, the colonists began to fly the Red Ensign defaced by six horizontal white stripes creating thirteen alternating red and white stripes, one for each colony. This was subsequently referred to as the Grand Union Flag, and was the US’s first national flag. 

All the way back to the seventeenth century, there had existed in the English-speaking colonies of North America a movement to remove the Cross from their flag. Anticipating Edmund Burke’s famous observation that “a man is certainly the most perfect Protestant who protests against the whole Christian religion”, the Puritans who dominated New England objected to the Cross in the canton of the Red Ensign as a symbol of Papal domination. While this was eventually stamped out by the king’s representatives, for much of the seventeenth century, New England flew a red flag with a blank white square in the canton. 

Slightly less than a year after the American Declaration of Independence, the Puritans’ dreams were finally realised. The Flag Resolution of the Second Continental Congress on 14 June 1777 replaced the Crosses of St Andrew and St George in the canton of the US Flag with a circle of thirteen white stars on a blue background. This number has been increased with the accession of each new state until the flag assumed its present form of fifty stars in diagonal rows in 1960. Today the Democrats cherish the hope that a fifty-first state might be fashioned out of Puerto Rico or Washington DC in order skew the electoral college for Presidential elections in their direction. 

The USA was the first Western polity since the fourth century to refrain from formally embracing the truth of Christianity. While St Paul tells us that the powers that be are ordained by God (Rom 13:1), the US Declaration of Independence tells us rather that “Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed”. While George Washington officially proclaimed in 1789 that “it is the duty of all Nations to acknowledge the providence of Almighty God, to obey his will, to be grateful for his benefits, and humbly to implore his protection and favor”, in Article 11 of the Treaty of Treaty of Tripoli, ratified by the US Senate in 1797, the USA asserted that “the Government of the United States of America is not, in any sense, founded on the Christian religion”.

Nor was this reality lost on many early Americans. As one of the new nation’s preeminent jurists, Supreme Court Justice Joseph Story observed:

“It yet remains a problem to be solved in human affairs, whether any free government can be permanent, where the public worship of God, and the support of religion, constitute no part of the policy or duty of the state in any assignable shape. The future experience of Christendom, and chiefly of the American states, must settle this problem, as yet new in the history of the world, abundant, as it has been, in experiments in the theory of government.” 

Indeed, in the nineteenth century, there was a significant movement, headed by what was called the “National Reform Association”, to amend the US Constitution to make it explicitly Christian. Somewhat surprisingly, it is said to have received support from Abraham Lincoln. But the movement petered out. In 1897, a “Christian Flag” was created and later adopted by various Protestant denominations. Ironically, it retains the form of a colonial ensign, but removes the red stripes, leaving a white field with a red Latin cross on a blue background in the canton, inadvertently creating a sort of negative image of the Red Ensign of 1707. 

These facts serve to show that, while the American system — despite its many virtues — exhibits pathologies unique to and indeed flowing from Protestantism, many Protestants recognised the implicit danger this system represented to the Christian religion. 

Christ’s kingdom is not of this world (Jn 18:36), but all authority in heaven and on earth is given to Him (Mt 28:18). There is no power given to temporal rulers except from above (Jn 19:11), and thus all kings must fall down before Christ, and all nations must serve him (Ps 71:11). For this reason, St Paul, the Apostle to the Gentiles, was made Christ’s vessel of election in order to go to the nations and to their kings (Acts 9:15). His life-giving and glorious Cross stands as an ensign to the nations to gather the scattered children of God from the four corners of the earth (Is 11:12). “Neutrality” is a device of the enemy, he who does not gather with Christ scatters (Mt 12:30). There is no triumph except under the banner of the Cross (Col 2:15). “I have said these things to you, that in me you may have peace. In the world you will have tribulation. But take heart; I have overcome the world.” (Jn 16:33) 

George Berkley thought America might actually be the Messianic kingdom: 

Westward the course of empire takes its way; 
The four first acts already past, 
A fifth shall close the drama with the day;
Time’s noblest offspring is the last. 

That honour, however, is and has always been reserved for Christ’s Holy Catholic Church. If the US is not to take up Biden’s suggestion (intentional or unintentional) and form the visible manifestation of another kingdom altogether, the faithful must recall the warning of St John Paul II that it is truth which makes freedom possible, that “every generation of Americans needs to know that freedom consists not in doing what we like, but in having the right to do what we ought.” 

O Mary,
bright dawn of the new world,
Mother of the living,
to you do we entrust the cause of life.
Look down, O Mother,
upon the vast numbers
of babies not allowed to be born,
of the poor whose lives are made difficult,
of men and women
who are victims of brutal violence,
of the elderly and the sick killed
by indifference or out of misguided mercy.

Grant that all who believe in your Son
may proclaim the Gospel of life
with honesty and love
to the men of our time.

Obtain for them the grace
to accept that Gospel
as a gift ever new,
the joy of celebrating it with gratitude
throughout their lives
and the courage to bear witness to it
resolutely, in order to build,
together with all men of good will,
the civilisation of truth and love,
to the praise and glory of God,
the Creator and lover of life.