There is no need to subscribe to the cocktail set’s snide defamation of patriotism as ethnocentric jingoism. Patriotism is neither adolescent nor obsolescent. Why should we modern Americans consider it unworthy of a good press?
Some social planners think a well-functioning technological society has no need of patriotism: since a computer age can presumably program utopia, patriotism has been made technically obsolete. But these naturalistic dreamers oversimplify human experience. They relate mankind to machines rather than to persons, forgetting that man isolated from a society of selves is less than fully human. Moreover, they demote patriotism to emotion and metaphor, and ignore its rational basis. It is remarkable that those who offer the mythology of “scientific naturalism” as a comprehensive explanation of the externally real world naively think they have thereby exorcised all contemporary myths, while in fact they mask the very truth, values, and personal decision that alone can give even their own formulations interpersonal significance.
The first word spoken of one’s nation or government need hardly be negative criticism, particularly if one is a Christian. A nation should be publicly credited for whatever virtues it distinctively pursues. Americans have no moral duty to suppress gratitude for significant national achievements—noteworthy social improvements made without the savagery of the French and Russian revolutions, use of American military might to destroy Hitler, technological competence to split the atom and put a man on the moon, and the world’s highest per-capita availability of food, bathtubs, automobiles, and, for good or ill, television sets.
The patriot delights in the ideals of the land and people that establish his political identity. To the preservation of those ideals he is personally dedicated, being ready to resist at great personal cost, even to the point of death, any assault that gravely imperils them. The American patriot is grateful for all the natural and personal resources of his homeland, and for its commitment to transcendent justice and to man’s dignity as a free and responsible agent.
Since the state provides for its citizens security against threats from without and within, no nation has ever lacked super-patriots and chauvinistic nationalists, whereas critics of the established national policy readily appear to be a radical fringe. Yet no nation should require its citizens to ignore the moral and religious implications of its call that they devote their energies to its preservation and their lives to its defense.
In the twentieth century, totalitarian nations have demanded of their inhabitants an unprecedented degree of undeviating loyalty to national political rulers, institutions, and policies. Whenever patriots think that their nation can do no wrong, idolize national institutions as beyond criticism, and absolutize a particular earthly government as universally ideal, patriotism becomes nationalism. The next step is to champion a global extension of that government; patriotism is thereby exploited as a means of political expansion.
Neither communist, socialist, nor democratic societies are immune from a nationalistic mentality. If the power and grandeur of a nation are made the main basis of pride, then the sense of reverence for its might and majesty easily escalates into idolatrous temptations. Seldom do those who take pride only in a country’s prestige and power clearly see its enduring concerns.
American patriotism is linked to a particular political belief system often called “the American creed.” Those who wish to “liberate” the nation from that belief system can hardly be considered promotive of American patriotism. No country can be expected to reformulate policies and practices in response to the demands of those who perceive the majority as “enemies,” and who think that public structures must be overthrown by force.
Yet patriotism is correlated with a value context in which personal commitments ought to be made; it is not tied as closely to mere national sovereignty as is nationalism. Someone has said that nationalism is “one God under nation”; patriotism is “one nation under God.”
Patriotism ought not to be shunned simply because it incorporates the possibility of overcoming critical judgment and will and thereby becoming idolatrous. For true patriotism is identical neither with the mood of “my country right or wrong” nor with the “post-American” mentality. Patriotism evaluates national policy and behavior not from the perspective of special interest but in view of the nation’s openly professed ideals.
The present decline of American patriotism clearly requires a reversal. When a patriotic citizenry disappears, a country is done for. Patriotism is absolutely indispensable to the survival of a political sovereign power. No nation will long endure without the support, dedication, and enthusiasm of its own people. No merely utilitarian or value-free approach will enable a nation to function well; neither will the trains long run nor planes long fly, let alone on time, without patriotism.
For America, patriotic devotion is especially important for several reasons. The United States arose not as a natural unity consolidating peoples with a single long tradition, but through a process of artificial construction that brought together people from various countries, races, and religions. A creation of immigrants seeking political salvation in a variety of colonial empires, the “United States” had an imported experience and history shaped by tears behind and aspirations ahead.
The unusualness of the American experience is reflected in the American creed, a definitive ideology foundationally expressed in the nation’s political documents, the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, and in a secondary way in the public pronouncements of their revered exponents.
Whether one speaks of common convictions, of national purposes, of public piety, or merely of social glue, America now reflects a disturbing lack of cohesive force. American conviction is declining at a quickening rate, and to cope with this dissonance from earlier values becomes increasingly difficult. Because the nation’s creedal foundation is now ambiguously perceived, and its essential definition obscured, a resultant loss of faith surrounds various aspects of the national creed. Apart from some awakening and renewal, the future looming before us is frightening indeed.
As the nation prepares for its bicentennial observance, Americans need to familiarize themselves with what the founding fathers considered profoundly significant. They coupled a highly particular vision of America’s mission among the nations with a conviction that God has universally bestowed upon men inalienable rights, and with a belief in free, responsible, and limited government. If we rediscover that quality of political creed and implement it, we may very well experience a rebirth of authentic patriotism.
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