Did you sing patriotic songs in church lately? I admit that when the organ introduced “The Star-Spangled Banner” at the beginning of a Sunday worship service just preceding Independence Day my intellectual super-ego (I won’t say conscience), conditioned by years of exposure to politically correct academic opinion, set off a little alarm bell. What does national self-congratulation have to do with a gospel of personal repentance and universal love? I suspected that a few other sensitive souls — and perhaps our non-American friends in the congregation — might have experienced some discomfort.
But I sang along, and within a stanza or two found myself at home with my patriotism and my religion, and with both together. Is that wrong? I don’t often give thought to the war of 1812, and I would have voted for “America the Beautiful” if asked in 1931 when the decision was made for our present anthem. Still, I was moved as I sang by the image of the morning breeze, as it “half-conceals half-discloses” the flag representing the successful defense of Fort McHenry, and ready to “praise the Pow’r that hath made and preserved us a nation!”
But again, isn’t it wrong and even dangerous to affirm “conquer we must,” even if we add the qualification “when our cause it is just”? (At least we don’t go as far as the French “Marseillaise,” the revolutionary anthem that calls for the “impure blood” of France’s enemies to “water our furrows!”) Christ’s kingdom, we know, is not of this world, and national pride seems to contradict universal brotherhood and sisterhood. How can we let accidental and mortal attachments to a particular homeland and its ways distract us from what is essential in our humanity?
My answer on behalf of Christian patriotism is that as humans we are not abstract universal beings, but persons deeply shaped by attachments to family, community and, yes — if we are lucky or blessed — by loyalty to an imperfect but worthy political nation, necessarily defined and defended by military power. We are not abstract individuals, but sons and daughters of particular fathers and mothers and of a patrie, or fatherland. Stripped of such attachments, what is left of our humanity? How can we love “the other” as ourselves if we do not first love ourselves and our own? And if we love a God who loves us, then our attachments to this family and this country can only be gifts of providence.
Without particular affections rooted in real communities, the abstract individual is reduced to mere physical needs and left vulnerable to the claims of arbitrary identities (racial, sexual, etc.) If we find nothing good to stand up for (and, yes, to correct and improve upon) in our own actual heritage, then we are left only to stand against reality, which is always imperfect, to direct our moral or moralizing energies in ways that merely “resist,” that only negate existing goods and do not build up real, stable, self-sustaining communities.
The old commandment to honor father and mother is fundamental, and respect for our elders cannot be severed from regard for old ways, for the tried and true, for real, concrete goods. Patriotism is an expression of gratitude for what we have been given, and it is inseparable from love of what is familiar, what is one’s own — one’s own good and one’s own responsibility. And such gratitude is the necessary basis for the virtue of courage, a readiness to defend shared goods, with force if necessary.
This courageous gratitude is by no means incompatible with recognition of our country’s defects and openness to the reasonable patriotism of others. “God mend thine every flaw!” When I affirm “I love thy rocks and rills, thy woods and templed hills” I show no disrespect of others’ love of their own landscapes or their own inherited ways. As an incurable Francophile, for example, I may have been annoyed by Charles De Gaulle’s sometimes excessive suspicion of America, but I am deeply moved by his commitment to “a certain idea of France.”30 comments on this story
Good Christians are first of all good human beings — grace does not negate, suggests Thomas Aquinas, but completes our familial and political nature. Our moral and spiritual natures require loyalty to real, natural communities, including gratitude for the security, order and liberty we owe to a political nation and to the power that sustains it. So let us praise our country as we worship our God, our fathers’ God. Our patriotism may sometimes half-conceal our Christian humanism. But it half-discloses it, too.