Russell Reno knows how bad the news is. The financial system is reeling, and the United States is stumbling overseas.

“The strange thing, however, is that when I turn away from daily news and take the dog for a walk, I end up smiling,” writes First Things’ features editor. “Underneath all my anxious hand wringing, I’m an optimist about the future of America.”

Don’t worry … be happy? Why?

“No doubt my optimism arises, at least in part, from an only semi-rational patriotism,” writes Reno, who is also a Creighton University Theology professor. “ It’s natural to see strength in the country one loves. But what I see is, I think, real. America has a collective identity, a shared story that is strikingly powerful. Paul Revere, George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, Robert E. Lee, the Statue of Liberty, revival preachers, Grange halls, Woody Guthrie, soldiers on Iwo Jima, Joe DiMaggio, Martin Luther King Jr. — I’m not saying that it’s a coherent identity, but it pulses with life.”

That America is far from gone for good, he said. It is looming up in the future.

“Today, I’m willing to bet that there is a nineteen-year-old son of Mexican immigrants who is serving in the U.S. Army in Iraq who is now and will remain fiercely loyal to our national ideal.”
That ideal isn’t just the “American dream” of financial success. It’s the moral vision of our founding principles.

“People like to say that America is powerful because she is wealthy and can afford a large military budget,” writes Reno. “But this confuses consequences with causes. We live in a country of extraordinary wealth and military might because of the deeper power of our collective identities as Americans. At the end of the day, people — their values, their loyalties, their aspirations — make the difference. And when they can cooperate toward a common end, their talents and strengths are magnified manyfold. The Greeks discovered this in their cities: A small army of Athenians is far more powerful than a large army of slaves.”

— Tom Hoopes