By Charles Redfern
I admit it. I’ll be a sap on July 4th, sniveling for Old Glory with my hand over my heart while the fireworks boom. I love this lumbering giant called America, which I’m still convinced can be a force for good despite its colossal mistakes. So I’m patriotic. So arrest me.
“Patriotism” is a sizzling word. It sears and blisters and roars with flames and fuels temperamental fire in normally affable souls. They’ll quote from the cynical cavalcade. Samuel Johnson: patriotism is “the last refuge of the scoundrel;” George Bernard Shaw: “Patriotism is your conviction that this country is superior to all other countries because you were born in it.” We imagine flag-draped demigods branding their opponents as “un-American,” with the rivals unwittingly playing into their hands when they snub patriotism’s validity and, despite their disclaimers, portray the United States as the most militaristic and narcissistic empire ever to chew up freedom-lovers. They itemize the Native American slaughter, slavery, racism, CIA-propped banana republics and the Vietnam “quagmire.” All so true and terrible, but who else triple-rescued Europe (World War 1, World War 2, the Marshal Plan) and contained the Soviet Union – which really was an “evil empire,” impolitic though the phrase may be?
The word becomes more muddled for serious Christians. God transcends borders and cherishes the Bangladeshi rickshaw runner just as much as the New York cab driver. We’re citizens of God’s Kingdom, Christ’s ambassadors through whom God makes his appeal (see 2 Corinthians 5:20). We’re strangers, aliens. This is not our true home, so best steer clear from that us-verses-them, love-or-leave-it, God’s-on-my-side word view.
But is true patriotism necessarily jingoistic and exclusive? Stephen J. Brown, S.J., lends insight in his essay, “What Is Patriotism?” He traced the word’s roots, involving the terra patria, la patrie, das Vaterland. Patriotism is love for “the fatherland,” the soil and people that reared us. He quotes a Catholic pamphlet: “One’s ‘native land’ … is an extension of hearth and home. It … has given life to one’s forefathers and holds their tombs, and which in turn nurtures one’s children and grandchildren. It is a link between generations, between families and friends, between common experience of the past and that of present and future …” I love my country for the same reason I love my nuclear and extended family – and as I would my clan or tribe. The “Redferns” reared me, instilled their hybrid heritage, taught me creeds and values and gave me relationships. The United States did the same thing on a broader scale. I can praise God for the United States in the same way I praise God for the Redferns. I was nurtured in its womb.
Here is true patriotism’s beautiful distinction from nationalism: I need not begrudge Canadians their valid loyalty anymore than I would resent the Johnsons fidelity to their kin. The Redferns need not be “better” than the Johnsons. I merely love the Redferns because they’re my family. I’d commend a Johnson to love the Johnsons and a Garcia to love the Garcias. Let the French love France; let the Germans love Germany; let the Canadians love Canada – and let each welcome and befriend the others. God saw fit to nurture each in their respective country; we can praise God for the consequent relationships and enjoy each other’s culture.
And I’ll appreciate America’s distinctive: We are one of the few nations founded on ideals, the chief of which is freedom of expression and the right to criticize the country itself. All can be citizens. All can be included. It is simply un-American to differentiate “real Americans” from others; and it is un-American to call others “un-American” because they criticize national policy. We’re no longer unique in that respect – democracies have been growing like mushrooms – but that’s largely because those vaunted ideals spread like wildfire.
What a country.
So, if you don’t mind, I will yelp with the fireworks and place my hand over my heart – because I’m an unabashed, sincere patriot. I love this huge, messy nation.