America Needs Patriotism
More and more patriotism and nationalism seem to be on the decline. One poll from 2020 found that only 35% of American adults were willing to describe themselves as “patriotic.” The number was higher among Republicans (55%) and lower among Democrats (24%), but in all cases represented a drop across the board from only two years earlier. The word is clearly seen as a dirty one among one party more than the other, but even among Republicans, nearly half will no longer describe themselves as patriotic. The problem is even worse among young people who, more and more, seem to identify patriotism as a vice. I remember an occasion when I hung an American flag in my classroom only to have shocked students ask me in concern: “You’re not patriotic, are you?”
But then, why should the young think otherwise? They are being systematically taught in schools that patriotism is a vice, that nationalism and nations are wicked and bad, and that large supranational organizations, like the United Nations are good and pure. American history classes in schools are littered with trash of which the absurdly unhistorical 1619 project is only the most obvious and offensive example. No wonder the young are in such a rush to destroy and pull down statues of important American historical figures. We have convinced a generation of young people that it is hip, smart, and sophisticated to hate America.
And this is a deep offense against justice. Justice, according to Aristotle, means giving another his due. Is my nation and its history due nothing from me? Has it done nothing to deserve my gratitude and love? It would be unjust of me to be ungrateful to my parents for housing me, feeding me, raising me, and protecting me. Do I also owe no gratitude to my nation, which has allowed them to do so? Do I owe no gratitude to the men who have made it, given us a constitution that projects our liberties, and shed their blood to defend it?
One possible way of thinking about patriotism lies in Aristotle’s concept of the “golden mean.” For Aristotle, virtue lay in the “golden mean,” the happy middle ground between excess and deficiency, between too much and too little. The virtue of courage, for instance, represented the golden mean between the extremes of recklessness (too much) and cowardice (too little). We might see patriotism, properly understood, in the same way. Too much is the error of jingoism, an aggressive, dominating nationalism that is blind to the goods of other nations. Too little patriotism, we might call a sort of lukewarmness and perhaps even hatred. And there have been jingoistic ages-19th century Britain comes to mind–and lukewarm ones–modern America seems more and more to qualify. We need the happy middle ground.
Love of nation, properly understood, is no more than an outgrowth of the love of home, family, and community. That community, the nation, is typically understood as a people with a shared history, culture, and language. Such a community is certainly worthy of one’s love, in the same way the family is worthy of one’s love. If I love my family, including family members I have never known, but have heard or read about, may I not love my country and Americans with whom I share a country and history? May I not be grateful to them for what they have given me?
That love will not be a blind love; that is, a love blind to the faults of one’s nation or community. Love is not blind at all. It wills the good of the beloved, the mother, spouse, children, or country. We need not delude ourselves that all is well or has always been well in our nation. It is a human institution and, like all such, tainted by the fall. Its history has been full of heroic actions and shameful ones, great heroes, and great villains, much to praise, and much to repent. But it is still our country, our community and shared heritage. We cannot ungratefully turn its history and past into one long train of abuses and offenses while failing to recognize that our very freedom to protest and complain is, in fact, one of those very freedoms our country protects for us.
The shared nation, common past, history, and culture, bind us together as a nation still today. It cannot be coincidence that as patriotism and nationalism are weakening; our country seems more and more divided, our disagreements more bitter, and our division more likely. Some have even wondered if we are heading for national divorce. That is more than I know, but surely Lincoln was right when he spoke of a house divided, and held, following scripture, that a house divided could not stand. If our land will be united neither by Christianity nor by love of nation, then it will be only a land divided.
There are higher loves than the love of country, such as the love of family. There are higher loves than the love of family, like the love of God. Our Lord once said: “Anyone who loves their father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; anyone who loves their son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me” (Matthew 10:37). Patriotism is not the highest good or love, but it is a necessary one in this world.
May God Bless America.