By Chip Prehn
I am going to be patriotic this Independence Day. I realize that patriotism can be confused with what’s being called “nationalism.” This article is not about nationalism. What I mean by “patriotism” is love of country, affection for the patria. Patriotism was expected in my family. My father and mother, grandparents, uncles, aunts, older siblings, teachers, and coaches were quite patriotic for the most part. Dad, a naval officer in the South Pacific during World War II, was delighted to fly the colors of the United States on Independence Day, VJ Day, VE Day, Memorial Day, Flag Day, Veterans Day, and on any other day he decided a spark of red, white, and blue was required. I suppose that my father was the most patriotic person I have known.
But my father understood the danger that love of country can become conditional. Unconditional love includes a willingness to speak the truth in love to — or about — the beloved; to be of service in correcting faults; and to employ tough love when required. But conditional love is cheap. Conditional patriotism allows me to stop loving if things are not going my way or according to my requirements.
My father loved his country, but his high ideals made him very critical of his country at times. Toward the end of his life in 2004, he whose family had been voting Republican since 1856 expressed his disappointment with the person in the White House because he thought that, in too many parts of the world, the U.S.A. was taken for a bully. “That’s not why I volunteered to serve in the Pacific.”
C.S. Lewis discussed love of country in The Four Loves. All affections point to higher loves. Patriotism can be a step toward love of God. Lewis was a man of many and deep affections. He liked beer, books, tobacco, long walks, and (especially) warm, intellectual fellowship with his friends. Once Lewis became a Christian, he wanted to learn how his affections lead him to more important loves. Taking after John Donne, Lewis did not want his affections to kill him, but neither did he want his affections to go away.
Lewis believed that love of home, family, spouse, friends, alma mater, and so on are very important. The “lesser” loves are gradual steps away from selfishness. Jesus said, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” Lewis wrote that “all natural affections … can become rivals to spiritual love; but they can also be preparatory imitations of it, training (so to speak) of the spiritual muscles which Grace may later put to a higher service” (42). Grace completes nature. Lewis pragmatically urges that patriotism is a way to affirm nature in the first place, so that grace has something to perfect.
Most people I know who travel abroad return to the United States rather glad to be Americans. Even as they learn many good and wonderful things about other countries and peoples, they become prouder Americans. But we don’t want our admiration for the United States — our Patria — to become the sort of pride that goeth before the fall. We can become merely chauvinistic. It is too easy to develop that ugly ethno-centrism Lewis called “racialism” or “Anglo-Saxonism” or cultural arrogance. The demonic sort of patriotism — “Our Land Over All Lands!” — has wrecked, and can still ruin, both souls and whole nations. A healthy patriotism will surely make us want peace, justice, and prosperity for everyone in the world. In contrast, nationalists of the more wicked variety want their people to triumph over all others — and over all rivals in their own country. The healthy love of country mentioned above actually makes it extremely difficult for a Hitler, a Lenin, or a Mao to ever gain power over the people.
Healthy patriotism moves us to admire exemplary actors in our country’s history who were perspicacious, wise, and brave. My elders admired the courage of persons in the family who fought in the American Revolution or the Civil War. This mild hero worship included members of the family who fought for the Confederate States of America. My mother taught us that the motive for Southern independence was as immoral as slavery was wicked. But she still expected us to honor the courage and valor of members of the family who served the Confederate States of America; for instance, her great-great uncle who fell in the Cornfield at Sharpsburg, Maryland, on September 17, 1862.
My wife is descended from a signer of the Declaration of Independence. While this connection is a source of pride, she is entirely aware of the problematics and paradoxes of the Declaration, the Constitution, and indeed the Revolution itself. A healthy love of country actually inspires one to make allowance for the fact that history is complicated. The first reason history is complicated is that “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Rom. 3:23). Human beings are so imperfect! We do selfish and wicked things. We put ourselves first. We take advantage of others and exploit them. We are quite often morally blind, even the most righteous among us.
If it is indeed necessary to understand patriotism as including real knowledge of our national history, warts and all, it is similarly responsible to beware of the strong anti-patriotism alive and well in the United States today. Like every other people in the history of the world, Americans have done terrible things. We must own these unsavory aspects of our history. But this is by no means the end of the story. I have found that it is a good exercise to contrast the bad news with the good. It is literally the case that, for every horrible fact about our past, there is a more positive counter-fact. Below are a few of the mentioned pairs.
(1) “Christian Americans allowed slavery to flourish for over 250 years.” This is true. But the U.S.A. and Great Britain did more than any other nations in history to both end the slave trade and abolish the enslavement of human beings. Moreover, during the years of emancipation and abolition in the United States, slavery actually expanded, and the slave trade increased in many parts of the world, including in the Arab, Chinese, and African worlds.
(2) “Women had to fight like hell for their rights as American citizens.” This is a true statement, but it is also true that in no part of the world have women achieved more rights and equality with men than in the United States and the North Atlantic world generally.
(3) “Free-market, industrial capitalism has created enormous wealth for some while the majority often find it difficult to make ends meet.” It is undoubtedly true that capitalism has its downside, but it is also a fact that in no part of the world do the less wealthy and the poor have a greater opportunity to improve their prospects and material conditions than in the United States of America. Many elites in the world are rather indifferent about the poor in their midst. That is by and large not true in America. I would ask the reader to observe what is happening on the southern border of the United States: People from all over the world will do almost anything to get to the United States. There are many other examples of really bad news that can be countered with at least much better news associated with the same nation.
So it is clear that history is definitely complicated, but this should not dampen our (healthy) patriotism. We must try as hard as possible to reject oversimplifications of our past. In his just-published War on the West, Douglas Murray warns that we should never make human nature simple or reduce human persons to discrete words or acts. “Good history,” writes Murray, “seeks to take complex junctures and see them in the round.” Ideology “should not displace historical understanding,” and historical understanding requires very hard work.
I would add to Murray’s counsel that we must avoid historicism like the plague. We do not know exactly how things will turn out. The historicist assumes she or he knows how history “must” go. Goodness! Not even Hegel was as plangently, desperately historicist as the typical journalist, public intellectual, politician, or priest is today. Well-instructed Christian citizens can never look upon the history of our own nation as inevitably good or as a dynamic of inexorable progress. One American founder we can be proud of is James Madison, who was so well acquainted with the tragic side of human nature that he fashioned the Constitution round the idea that “men are not angels” (Federalist Paper 51). Another way to put it is to say that no man or woman is altogether righteous. This should put on notice practitioners of the new censorious puritanism we encounter almost every day.
Our country is not perfect. If America is an “experiment,” then we should imagine that the gumbo pot is still simmering on the stove. For sure, many sins — moral, economic, political, ethnic — have been committed. But isn’t it our duty to be as patriotic as we can be anyway? I am thinking of Lewis’s insights. We must resolve to be patriotic because the United States is our patria, our only national home.
We might notice that the popular song “America” was written by a man whose ethnic community was despised by many Americans at the time. I submit that Irving Berlin was a greater patriot than many of those who hated his ethnic group. Why do I say this? Because Berlin loved his country, bigots and all.
God bless America, land that I love;
Stand beside her and guide her,
Through the night with the light from above.
I know almost nothing of Berlin’s religion, but we can be certain that he did believe that a transcendent “light from above” was available to those who are ambitious in the most healthy and wise way for the U.S.A. I discern a noble patriotism in “America” rather than a false consciousness.
What Berlin and so many other men and women of erstwhile “minority” status have understood better than many of us is that a good citizen really ought to suffer another citizen’s burdens. Such solicitude is catching. America was great again in the wake of 9/11. America was one. America was a great example to the world. I would close this little article by noting that patience is one of the gifts of the Holy Spirit. I also think of the gift of “long-suffering” godliness we find so prominent in the Hebrew Bible. Patience and long-suffering are required for good citizenship. And now I remember that line in the beginning of The Great Gatsby where Nick Carraway remembers the advice his father gave him before he left for the big city: “Reserving judgment is a matter of infinite hope.”
I shall be patriotic this year. The reason is that I was born to hope.