I recently had a discussion with a friend about what patriotism would mean for someone like me, particularly after noting my disgust with Romney’s messianic claim that “this nation is the hope of the Earth.” As anyone who follows me on Facebook or knows me personally will know, I frequently pass along and comment on information very critical of the United States government, particularly with regards to foreign relations, civil liberties, and economics.
The question this friend raised was, even if I agree with you, where if anywhere then is there a place for patriotism?
My initial responses were a little scattered. It’s something I’ve thought about quite a bit, but never known quite how to come to terms with. At first I cataloged a list of America’s sins that often go unnamed and unaccounted for, as evidence that perhaps patriotism is misplaced. But then when lightly rebuffed by my friend I realize that that didn’t really answer the question.
So I talked some about how patriotism has shifted in the course of history especially with the advent of modernism from love of a culture and a people to loyalty to a system of power and coercion.
I also talked about how love of a smaller body of people that one truly felt connected to, like a city seemed to come more naturally to me, and how we don’t owe unconditional love to a nation-state as such (or if we do only inasmuch as we want to see them restored, using the examples of Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn).
But I wasn’t really satisfied with my answer, and as I began to talk about the conversation with my wife I realized why.
I think that my frequent and vociferous criticisms of the U.S. government are in fact themselves born out of patriotism. Patriotism has everything to do with love of neighbor, and love of those who you share the camaraderie of citizenship with. To be a patriotic American is to love and have concern for your fellow Americans. That is precisely the reason that I am so vocal about the actions of the United States government.
I believe that our Constitution, as the enshrinement of the rule of law for the nation matters; not that it is perfect or sacred, but it is what we have and it is the final rule of law for this nation. And so when I see it trampled, my concern for my fellow man is piqued. When I see the United States government engaged in undeclared and illegal wars, when I see them invading countries on false pretenses, causing the deaths of half a million children in Iraq via sanctions, destroying the economy and thus starving millions of Iranians, killing innocent civilians, men, women and children in Pakistan, Yemen, and elsewhere via drone bombs operated by men with joysticks in California or Missouri, my love of country and countrymen compels me to cry out against such injustice and brutality so that others will not willingly soak their hands in the blood of a corrupt government. I love my country enough to recoil at the thought of her engaging in such evil.
It is because I love my country and my countrymen that I speak out against their disenfranchisement and loss of civil liberties through things like the TSA, the Patriot Act, the National Defense Authorization Act, and the President’s kill list which allows for the assassination of American citizens without trial or due process.
It is because I do love my country and thus my neighbors, whether across the street, across the state, or across the nation that I speak out against police brutality, the so-called war on drugs, the use of para-military and SWAT teams on non-violent civilians, the disarmament of the citizenry, warrantless wiretaps, the domestic use of drones and cameras, etc.
I could go on and on, but that would be to belabor the point, which is that it is precisely my love of country, defined as the people that make up this nation, that impels me to care about the destruction of liberty, the betrayal of the rule of law, the trampling of the Constitution and the principles (however imperfect) upon which the founders of our country intended to establish this nation.
To be clear, I am not some sort of golden-age perfectionist. I am not calling for the repristination of a formerly ideal America. I understand that this country was founded with institutional sin embedded in the form of legal chattel slavery among other things.
My argument, like that of the civil rights leaders is that one can be a patriot while decrying in the starkest terms the actions of one’s government. One can be a patriot while being ashamed of the evil one’s government perpetrates. Patriotism is defined as the love of one’s country. I love the United States. In fact I love it enough to be honest, and to say that we are sinking into a moral quagmire. I love it enough to decry corruption, collusion and evil on both sides of the dominant political aisle. I love it enough to rail against injustice and evil for the sake of my fellow countrymen who consciously or unconsciously suffer from the debasement of their culture, government and civilization. I do not apologize for speaking the most harsh and direct truths about our moral failures, our injustices, our evils… but that does not mean I do not love the country. Jeremiah loved the Israel he lambasted. I love my country and my countrymen, and I hope that by being willing to speak prophetically to her I am showing the kind of tough love that is necessary amidst such moral turpitude.
Finally, above all I love Christ and his Church which knows no borders, which means that my patriotism can never sink into mere nationalism. I will always love the Church first, and subjugate my love of country to my love of Christ and His Church. So, as I said in my comments in the initial Facebook thread that prompted this post, there may be a time to not love one’s country if it comes to a choice between love of country and love of God. Similarly there may be times to take sides with other nations if one’s country is engaged in unjust actions against them. But that is another subject, and would require a great deal more unpacking.
For now I will say, that perhaps the proposed distinction between critique of government and patriotism is simply a false distinction. I critique the government of the country I love, for the sake of the people of that country.