What is Patriotism?
Patriotism suffers. It suffers from abuses; it suffers from a poor reputation. But what it suffers most of all is from our tendency to excess; one is either quite patriotic, or not patriotic at all. Both excesses, of course, must be condemned; both are wrong. But to begin with, what is patriotism—and do we need to have it?
Patriotism is part of the obligation of the 4th commandment, “Honor thy father and mother.” The fourth commandment has a long history of being understood as referring not simply to one’s biological parents, but to one’s licit authorities–teachers and the government being two examples. This is because teachers and governments provide benefits and protections that also belong to parents: teachers teach (this is the role of parents, but delegated) and governments protect and defend (as fathers do, simply on a much larger scale). The fourth commandment expresses the obligation we owe to all these groups, our own parents being first among them.
St. Thomas Aquinas is clear: We owe a certain piety toward our country. When we belong to a nation, and are protected by its laws and its forces (however imperfectly), we owe our nation in a way that we do not owe other nations. Because of this indebtedness, patriotism is a form of justice (giving to another what is due); we are indebted to our government for the various benefits it gives to us, hence in justice we owe our country. United States citizens do not claim that China has given us our civil right to vote. We do not claim that Brazil has given us child labor laws. We do not claim that Afghanistan has upheld our freedom to worship. No, we are especially indebted to the United States for those things.
Therefore, patriotism cannot be replaced by globalism: either relying on the “globe” for protection, or attempting to help the entire globe at once. Even on a smaller scale, most people would find it absurd to suggest, “Well, we should spread our money around all the families in the neighborhood; we have an obligation to everyone, after all.” No, everyone who earns money for a family does it as a special provider and protector of their own. This is not selfishness. This is why God gave us families to begin with: to give us someone who will specially care for us, rather than dividing attention among too many of us. This same reason is why God gives us a country, as well.
There is no global government, thanks be to God. No vague notion of an earth-wide United Nations can replace the more concrete, specific existence of a country. “The earth” as a whole does not give us benefits and protections. As one can see by the bureaucratic nonsense (and general uselessness) of the United Nations, global organizations fail, most often, to protect and defend the rights of all the members of its nations. Recall, after all, that the U.N. considers abortion access to be a human right! The United Nations cannot protect our individual rights and has little authority to do so. Have Russia or China changed under its “sanctions” and “warnings”? The bigger the governing body and the area it governs, the harder it is to protect individuals. That is, of course, why the United States has state governments as well as the federal government: to better protect individual and local interests.
Patriotism recognizes that our government is ours: that our country takes care of us in a special way, thus we owe it in a special way. Of course, such patriotism is not supposed to go to excess: one does not exclude other families or nations, but one gives special care for the well-being of one’s own. Furthermore, one does not approve of evils committed by one’s family or nation. In fact, it is one’s duty to lead one’s “own” away from such things; that is part of the obligation. A moral person does not allow their family to commit evil and simply abandon or ignore them. No, a moral person wishes their family’s salvation; they work toward it, however much is possible. Similarly, we give special care for the well-being of our nation, not because we don’t care about other nations or people, but because we are tasked with giving special care to our own. We are only human: we cannot, with our limited capacity, protect and care for every other human being. Only God has the unlimited power to do so; a government must not presume to have it.
Indeed, patriotism is properly expressed by care for the well-being of other individuals, not by blind obedience toward our country’s government. Patriotism does not mean to approve of every law, every event, every injustice that has happened within the country or due to its government. Nor does patriotism mean that we must believe that our country is nigh-perfect. (Regardless of where one lives, one is always keenly aware of the imperfections of one’s government.) Patriotism asks: “What does my country do for the good of the people?” and “What should I do for the good of these people?” Again, this is not to exclude helping others, but it is a boon to have a specific group, place, family to focus on. To have a nation is to have somewhere to go for protection; to have a nation is to have a group of people that has banded together to aid and defend one another.
A nation is not a replacement for a family, nor should it ever be: the family has the foremost place of honor in the fourth commandment. But a nation has power on a scale that families do not; and a nation that does what it ought, does the work of the Heavenly Father in protecting and caring for us. The Latin root of the word patriotism is pater, “father.” To honor our country is to recognize its form of fatherhood.
To reject patriotism altogether is to deny the fourth commandment and to refuse to honor it. The most popular rejection of patriotism nowadays is in its replacement. Love of country is replaced by class or race affiliation, sexual orientation, feminism, or globalism. Prioritizing these “isms” over one’s country does not fulfill the obligation of the commandment. The Catholic philosopher Ed Feser specifically condemns this replacement of patriotism with other “isms”:
… the kind of cosmopolitanism that puts loyalty to the international community over national loyalty is often regarded these days as morally superior to patriotism, in fact it is immoral, in a way that is analogous to the immorality of refusing to have a special love and loyalty for one’s own parents and family. Similarly immoral are views which replace patriotism with loyalty to one’s economic class (as Marxism does), or one’s race (as both left-wing and right-wing brands of racism do), or one’s narrow economic interests (as global corporations do), or oneself as a sovereign individual owing nothing to any social order at all (as anarcho-libertarianism does).
Patriotism, like love of family, is a virtue practiced under the fourth commandment; it cannot be refused or replaced simply because one sees flaws or even because one has suffered within one’s country or family. The fourth commandment urges us to respect, love, and care for our country–and when necessary, to seek to change and correct it. Patriotism, then, never conflicts with Christian morality or the worship due to God. Properly, it is an expression of morality: it is piety, it is justice, and it is God’s command.