A fascinating survivor: 7-2/3-11
Religious fear and loathing: 7-5-11

What's patriotism, anyway? 7-4-11

Twice in the last few days I've given a talk about what patriotism is all about. The speech will look kind of long in type here on the blog, but, heck, it's a holiday. You've got all darn day to read it. And you'll be a profoundly better American (if you are one) when you're done.

American-Flag So Happy Fourth to you. And here's my talk (or at least a slightly edited version of it):

I can’t seem to get over my astonishment at people who confuse commitment to one’s nation with commitment to one’s religion.

As someone who has lived overseas for nearly two years and who has traveled around the world to nearly 40 countries, I’m all for patriotism and always ready to declare my love for the United States.

After all, this is the country that welcomed my grandparents from Sweden 113 years ago and my great-grandparents from Germany nearly 150 years ago. It has provided them, my parents, me, my children and my grandchildren with remarkable opportunities, some of which we’ve even been smart enough to take advantage of.

But America is not my God. And though I will celebrate the Fourth of July with gusto and gratitude, I will try to remember that America is not God’s chosen nation, that criticism of America is not sacrilegious and that there is a higher calling than offering an oath of fealty to our government.

Religion is nearly universal in its teaching about this.

The Hebrew Scriptures, for instance, scoff at the idea that nationhood is permanent: “Surely the nations are like a drop in a bucket; they are regarded as dust on the scales,” says Isaiah 40:15.

In the New Testament, the book of First Peter tells followers of Jesus they are “aliens and sojourners” in whatever land they happen to occupy. (It would improve the quality of the immigration debate if Christians engaged in it would remember that.)

American-eagle And deeply embedded in Islam is the idea of the “ummah,” or global Muslim community, which crosses national borders with hardly a by-your-leave.

Nation states as we understand them today, in fact, have precious little significance for traditional Islam, which preaches submission to God before submission to anything else. Indeed, as many of you know, the very word Islam means submission to God.

As scholar Seyyed Hossein Nasr writes in his book, The Heart of Islam, “Islam recognizes communities according to their religious affiliation. Christians are referred to as the ummah, or community, of Christ and Jews as the ummah of Moses, as Muslims constitute the ummah of the Prophet (Muhammad).”

Perhaps we Americans get seduced into conflating religious commitment and patriotism by what scholar Robert N. Bellah and others have called our “civil religion.”

By that, they mean the transcendent values — often linked to biblical tradition — that mark our culture. In our civil religion, the president regularly asks God to bless America, we sing “God Bless America” at sporting events, we declare that America is a city set on a hill to give moral leadership to the world and on and on.

There’s something comforting, even inspiring, about all of that. But civil religion can — and sometimes does — lead us astray by allowing us to imagine that the nation we have created within these particular boundaries is somehow divinely ordained.

And the problem did not first emerge with the 2008 Obama-McCain presidential race and its tawdry arguments about flag lapel pin patriotism. No, it’s been around for a long time.

So, in the past, we have found Lyndon Johnson saying that America was “created to help strike away the chains of ignorance and misery and tyranny wherever they keep man less than God wants him to be.”

And we have heard Ronald Reagan insisting “that a divine plan placed this great continent between the oceans to be found by a people from every corner of the earth who had a special love of faith, freedom and peace.”

And we’ve listened to Al Gore preach that “God’s hand has touched the United States of America — not by accident but on purpose.”

I could go on. You’ll thank me for not doing so.

American-Flag Our great religions regard that kind of talk as political poppycock and sacrilege. They say our first commitment must be to the creative power, or universal reality, that religion usually calls God. If you put anything before that commitment, they insist, it’s idolatry, which is exactly what the first of the Ten Commandments stands so steadfastly against.

Praying through song for God to “shed his grace” on America is a lovely and appropriate thing for people of faith to do. But when we imagine America alone thus stands blessed among the nations, our religions tell us not to be so foolish.

A few years go, I heard the late pastor Forrest Church, then senior minister of All Souls Unitarian Church in New York, suggest twice that there's a substantial difference between nationalism and patriotism.

"And I feel more patriotic today than I ever have in my life," he declared.

The first time he mentioned it was at the end of a conversation at an outdoor cafe. But we both needed to leave, so we didn't get to unpack his meaning. He next mentioned the difference at the conclusion of his remarks to a group at Community Christian Church in Kansas City, where he spoke about his new book, The American Creed: A Spiritual and Patriotic Primer. Again, there was no time to get him to expand.

It’s a book I highly recommend to you, by the way.

It would be helpful for all Americans to ponder the difference between nationalism and patriotism as we continue to battle terrorism and debate how and when to withdraw from combat in Afghanistan and Iraq.

Scholars have devoted whole careers to defining and understanding nationalism, pointing to various foundations for it, from language to ethnicity to religion.

And nationalism, in its most docile forms, need not be an evil construct. It can simply describe a theoretically neutral reality.

Author Benedict Anderson, for instance, in his 1983 book, Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism, says that a clear understanding of the concept requires us to grasp the idea of nation as "an imagined political community — and imagined as both inherently limited and sovereign. It is imagined because the members of even the smallest nation will never know most of their fellow members, meet them or even hear of them, yet in the minds of each lives the image of their communion."

Nationalism grew to modern prominence in the 19th century, as people came to prize national identities and as states were more consciously based on a commonality among people than on, say, a monarchial dynasty, a religion or control by a colonial power.

But as nationalism became a potent force in an increasingly dangerous world, intellectuals became suspicious of its tendency to produce bad fruit. And, oh, my, has it produced some bad fruit, indeed.

In 1945, for instance, author George Orwell warned in an essay that "nationalism is not to be confused with patriotism. ... By 'patriotism' I mean devotion to a particular place and a particular way of life, which one believes to be the best in the world but has no wish to force on other people. ... Nationalism, on the other hand, is inseparable from the desire for power. The abiding purpose of every nationalist is to secure more power and more prestige, not for himself but for the nation or other unit in which he has chosen to sink his own individuality."

If Orwell was right — and I think he was — the question his insights raise is what other differences there are between nationalism and patriotism and how we can encourage the healthy "ism" while avoiding the other. Here are the differences that occur to me:

Nationalism, because its goal is power, fears dissent. Patriotism encourages thoughtful dissent because it knows there's strength in the clashing of ideas.

Nationalism thinks it can win only if others lose. Patriotism doesn't see a zero-sum game but seeks answers that benefit everyone.

American-eagle Nationalism seeks the comfort of order for the sake of order. Thus, it produces such slogans as "America — love it or leave it" and "My country right or wrong."

Patriotism is comfortable with creative chaos, understanding that freedom and liberty sometimes are messy.

Nationalism wins hearts. Patriotism wins hearts and minds.

Nationalism has discipline. Patriotism has soul.

Nationalism, given its way, is too quick to compromise freedom for security. Patriotism would be more cautious.

If I must choose, I cast my lot with patriotism.

But I think the idea of patriotism, to be a helpful guide to us, needs to be unpacked in more depth.

One of the more serious questions raised by the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks is about the nature of patriotism.

What does it mean to be patriotic? Is it just flying the American flag? Just singing "God Bless America" at every turn? Just voicing support for our national struggle against terrorists?

If, in fact, patriotism does not go beyond those responses, it isn't worth much. I certainly am not suggesting flags and songs are wrong or silly. Not at all. But they're the frosting on the cake.

Real patriotism runs deeper. It's multilayered and not merely a short list festooned with reds, whites and blues and set to a rousing Sousa march.

If patriotism is just waving the flag, then Samuel Johnson was right that "patriotism is the last refuge of a scoundrel." And, worse, Guy de Maupassant was right that "patriotism is the egg from which wars are hatched."

What we must understand in this nervous time, this wounded time when everyone so easily rallies around the flag, is that patriotism, properly understood, is a necessary virtue. But patriotism distorted — as it was in the Vietnam War era phrase I mentioned earlier, "America, love it or leave it" — is no virtue at all.

My own short list of what makes up patriotism certainly isn't exhaustive, but I don't see how it's possible to claim to be a patriot without these characteristics. Patriots:

Are well-informed. And not just about current events but also about history.

One does not get well-informed by relying on one source of information. If, for instance, you get your news solely from television, there's no possible way to be well-versed. And your sources of information should represent different points of view.

If, for instance, your newspaper's editorial page tends to be what you think of as conservative, also read a publication that tends to be liberal in its editorial positions. And vice versa.

I don't think it's unpatriotic not to be able to name all the presidents in perfect order. But patriotism does require knowledge of the broad sweep of both national and world history.

If, for example, you don't know approximately when the Civil War was fought and — more to the point — why, it's hard to imagine how you can process today's events and draw lucid conclusions about public policy.

Next, patriots register and vote. The level of voter registration and participation in elections in America is a shameful scandal.

Patriots vote. It's the very lowest threshold of citizenship. Other patriots died so we all could go to the polls. Each time we skip that civic duty for anything but emergencies, we dishonor their sacrifice. And patriots vote not just in presidential elections but in local and state contests -- including primaries.

Patriots also understand the issues and grasp where the candidates stand on them. They follow the debates, are up on the arguments, feel at least reasonably confident expressing an opinion because they have considered it carefully.

Next, patriots both praise and criticize the government. I'm always stunned at how critical some people are of whatever the government does — until a national crisis arrives. Then some of them brook no criticism at all, imagining it to be unpatriotic.

American-Flag But the truth is that we don't defend our principles by abandoning them in crises. We don't honor freedom of speech by forbidding it. In good times and bad, we need to follow what our representatives are doing in our name and, if it's done well, praise them, but, if not, call them to account.

It is not treason to disagree with whoever is president. It can, however, be unpatriotic to silence dissident voices.

Next, patriots are active in their communities. Patriots know who their neighbors are and care about their welfare. They volunteer for good causes. They donate money, property and time to help people in need.

They also support education, especially the public schools, understanding that a learned and educated citizenry is crucial to our republic.

Patriots understand that people in other countries also can be patriotic without being a threat to our own nation. People in Taiwan, France, Colombia, Ghana and India may see the world differently than most Americans do. Patriots make room for such views without demonizing the people who hold them.

Patriotism requires more than waving Old Glory. If we don't understand that, we don't have much to defend.

Well, I hope I’ve complicated your thinking just a little bit about the meaning of patriotism. Let me close with this insightful thought from 19th Century English novelist and dramatist, Edward Bulwer-Lytton, who once wrote this: “Every man loves and admires his own country because it produced him.”

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A group called American Atheists is using this Fourth of July holiday to proclaim that people can be good without God. That's one of the great things about the U.S. People are free to advocate all kinds of ideas, even ones a majority of people think are foolish.


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