Columbus, Christianity, and Culture

On the current effort to de-Christianize and secularize American history

Columbus Day is one of the next focal points in the revisionist effort to rewrite American history to highlight what “woke” activists consider its irredeemably evil roots. Far from “discovering” America, they’ll say, Christopher Columbus was a “conqueror” who brought colonization, exploitation, disease, death, and a trail of tears to the Americas. Because the second Monday of October is a federally designated holiday, the woke have decided to co-opt it: many woke jurisdictions [see here] have re-christened (oh, that’s a bad word, too) Columbus Day as “Indigenous People’s Day.” There’s even legislation [here] pending in Congress to formalize that switch.

Officially, Columbus Day came relatively late to the pantheon of American holidays. FDR only proclaimed it in 1937, and Congress wrote it into the Uniform Monday Holiday Act of 1968 (the legislation that cut several holidays from their historical dates to create long weekends). Americans once honored Columbus’s discovery; the quadricentennial of his voyage was marked with great festivity in 1892, in contrast to its downplay on the quincentennial in 1992.

Italian Catholics in the first third of the 20th century lobbied hard for Columbus Day. They did so in part to celebrate the Genoese sailor, in part to mark their inclusion in American society, especially after years of discrimination against arrivals in the “New Immigration” of 1880-1920, which was predominantly southern and eastern European. As the name Knights of Columbus demonstrated, honoring the explorer also affirmed that Catholics were part of American history, a controversial fact given the long history of acceptable anti-Catholic prejudice in the United States.

Let me add two personal observations.

First, I read John Tracy Ellis’s Catholics in Colonial America back in high school. It was an eye-opener that forever changed how I looked at U.S. history. Up till then I was exposed to the standard model of American history: 13 plucky British colonies nestled on the East Coast achieved independence and then proceeded to expand across a continent.

Ellis’s book looked at U.S. history even in the 18th century from the perspective of what would be that continental U.S. territory. When you look at “U.S. history” from that broader aperture, you discover that while alienated Brits were prosecuting a revolution on the East Coast, Fr. Junipero Serra was building a chain of missions on the West Coast. You learn that a century earlier, Fr. Eusebio Kino was evangelizing today’s American Southwest. You become aware that the other side of the Appalachians was not Native American territory still unspoiled by contact with bad dead white European males because French missionaries and trappers had been all over what we today call the American Midwest. U.S. history is what it is thanks to a dynamic interplay of Spanish, French, and English elements with Native American peoples.

Second, I was privileged in 1989 to be part of a summer seminar organized by Dr. John Haas. The seminar was conducted at three universities: Villanova in the United States, the Catholic University of Eichstätt in Germany (which I attended), and a university in Puebla, Mexico. His vision was two-fold: to show how Europe, Latin America, and North America shared common cultural roots and that what ultimately made those roots common was the Christian dimension of that culture. I remember one professor described the relationship in terms I am sure would make some woke contemporaries shiver but with which I am perfectly fine: European Christian culture was the mother that has raised grown children in the Americas.

That many Europeans want to pretend they can amputate their culture from its Christian sources, and many inhabitants of the Americas feign their culture can be autonomous from its Christian roots, does not make those fictions any more real. They do, however, suggest to me that there is at least a parallel agenda to throwing Columbus and his holiday overboard: a conscious effort to de-Christianize and secularize history.

Did the Spanish, Portuguese, French, and English colonizers do bad things in the Americas? Yes. But not everything they did was intrinsically evil. They also did much good. Woke protests notwithstanding, Fr. Junipero Serra and the Franciscans did much for the indigenous peoples of California. Pierre-Jean De Smet, Jean de Brébeuf, Isaac Jogues, Jean-Baptiste Lamy et al. all benefited the peoples among whom they labored, even shielding them from exploitation and mistreatment those peoples might have suffered but for the Church’s presence.

They could, of course, respond that history has happened and that its cultural consequences cannot in practice be reversed, at least for the average person. But then that only exposes, in my judgment, the theological problem at the base of the woke mindset: its inability to handle evil (which is why man needed a Savior). The mindset cannot cope with genuine forgiveness and is rather awkward even with forgetfulness. I’d argue that the woke mentality lives off of confused residual gases of Protestant theology, specifically the latter’s forensic justification errors.

For mainstream Protestant theology, forgiveness is not so much an ontological change of the person as a divine peek-a-boo game: God pretends not to recognize man’s sinfulness. He “imputes” justification. Man remains spiritual dung. God’s grace is snow. The snow covers the dung. But don’t go tiptoeing through the frozen tulips.

These leftover gases of Protestant theology fuel contemporary nominalism that strips reality of reality, converting it into names and “identities.” And, in the end, it cannot deal with the problem that (a) there has been, is, and will continue to be evil in the world until the world’s end; (b) evil is a matter of will, not just intellect; and (c) evil ultimately is dealt with through repentance but also “letting go and letting God.” It is a perverse Pelagianism that thinks it can collect the feathers scattered by the wind and stuff them back into the torn pillowcase. And because it viscerally recognizes the task is impossible, it can’t move beyond penance to pardon.

Recognizing that history cannot be undone and that it is not unqualifiedly bad anyway, I entertain no sympathy for the “depose Columbus” agenda. I am especially unsympathetic to that effort when I recognize that it is often paired with some faith in Rousseauean mythology that the pre-Columbian Americas of the native peoples was some kind of Eden despoiled by the arrival of the Genoese serpent. An advanced civilization should recognize the difference between mythology and history, not displacing the latter by the former.

So, Happy Columbus Day!


John M. Grondelski (Ph.D., Fordham) was former associate dean of the School of Theology, Seton Hall University, South Orange, New Jersey. All views expressed herein are exclusively his.

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