Americans are in more of a malaise than a partying mood for today’s celebration of the Fourth of July. 

That’s probably because we’ve recently been served several large doses of humble pie. We’re the most powerful and technologically advanced nation on earth, yet we cannot stop a massive oil spill from threatening the economies and coastal ecosystems of multiple states. The national economy is still in shambles, and more than a third of us, according to a poll a few weeks ago, think the worst is yet to come. Almost two-thirds of us think the country is “on the wrong track.” Economists are divided over whether Congress’ astronomically expensive bailouts, health care reform and energy plan will work or backfire. 

And then there’s the bleak political landscape. Our elected leaders sometimes seem so absorbed in partisanship that they are incapable of doing what we elected them to do: promote the common good. The electorate is disengaged; in a recent South Carolina primary race, an inarticulate unemployed veteran facing felony obscenity charges won in a landslide, apparently solely because his name appeared at the top of the ballot. Politicians are disengaged; a congressman from North Carolina recently was forced to apologize after physically assaulting a college-aged videographer who asked where he stood on political issues. 

We’ve descended quite a way from the lofty rhetoric and high ideals of the nation’s Founding Fathers, who envisioned a nation of freedom and prosperity, an informed citizenry and opportunity for all to achieve improvement. 

In their words, which Pope Benedict XVI himself quoted when visiting the White House in 2008, we find the tonic for curing what presently ails our country: more active civic engagement of faith-filled people striving to live a virtuous, moral life. 

“Of all the dispositions and habits which lead to political prosperity,” George Washington said in a 1796 farewell speech as he stepped down from the presidency, “religion and morality are indispensable supports. In vain would that man claim the tribute of patriotism, who should labor to subvert these great pillars of human happiness.” 

Our second president, John Adams, made the same point: “Our Constitution was made only for a moral and religious people. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other.” 

Many Catholic Americans in recent decades consciously or not have erected a wall between their faith and civic participation out of a misguided concern of “imposing private beliefs” on others (see In Focus, Pages 9-12). Not only is that schizophrenic, it means many Catholics — a quarter of the U.S. population — are withholding a valuable patrimony that can sustain a healthy, pluralistic democracy. 

In his speech on the White House lawn, Pope Benedict said religious belief serves Americans as a “precious source of insight and an inspiration to pursue reasoned, responsible and respectful dialogue in the effort to build a more humane and free society.” 

“The preservation of freedom,” he added, “calls for the cultivation of virtue, self-discipline, sacrifice for the common good and a sense of responsibility toward the less fortunate. It also demands the courage to engage in civic life and to bring one’s deepest beliefs and values to reasoned public debate.” 

This Fourth of July, Catholics should recommit to growth in faith, and its contribution to our 234-year-old democracy.

Editorial Board: Greg Erlandson, publisher; Msgr. Owen F. Campion, associate publisher; Beth McNamara, editorial director; John Norton, editor; Sarah Hayes, presentation editor