Patriotism comes easily to people. We all innately like and appreciate the place we are from. Contrary to voices we often hear, patriotism doesn’t need to be promoted and groomed. It grows plenty well all by itself.
When I was young, my room was decorated with little cardboard patriotic placards—the kind teachers often use on classroom bulletin boards. I can still see the bald eagle, Mount Rushmore, the Statue of Liberty, a fife and drum, and, of course, the flag waving in the wind—all taped to my bedroom walls and closet door. When I watched a ballgame on TV, I would stand for the singing of the national anthem—even though I was all alone, down in the basement!
What changed? I guess I grew up.
I was a young kid in the late 1960’s, running through the living room while my parents watched the news—Vietnam, civil rights, MLK. I think I picked up just enough to sense something was amiss in my country. I recall, maybe it was 1970, going to a march to protest the Vietnam War with my father. I envisioned a gathering of other young lads with their pastor fathers in a suitcoat and tie. Instead, it was a bunch of hippies, peaceniks, my dad and me.
I started to read people like Stringfellow and Ellul, then later Hauerwas, Hunsinger, and Barth. Secular influences, too—Kurt Vonnegut, All Quiet on the Western Front. I was that earnest collegian who wrote term papers on “render unto Caesar” and Romans 13 (my abbreviated paraphrase: Speaking of enemies, we should probably talk about the empire for a bit. Don’t go out of your way to antagonize them. They’ve got a role to play, too…)
Simply put, I came to see that patriotism and my faith in Jesus were often vying for the same territory—my identity, my direction, my allegiance. I had to tell patriotism that there was a “no vacancy” sign on my heart.
But as much as anything what soured me on patriotism was patriots (not the football team from New England, although I’m not fond of them either). Maybe my experience is somewhat similar to the multitudes who say they are attracted to Jesus, but not so much his followers and church. Something good has gone sour. It has becomes the domain of fanatics and tyrants, bullies and browbeaters, shamers and haters. Samuel’s Johnson’s famous quote “Patriotism is the last refuge of a scoundrel” finds relevancy every generation.
A few of my patriotic pet peeves.
Few things are as beautiful and stirring as a flag in the wind. I half-believe that there is something primal, maybe even mystical, about how flags arouse people. (Anybody out there remember the conversation about flags in the odd 1981 movie My Dinner With Andre?)
There are lots and lots of fine people who cherish and respect the flag of the United States. I respect them. But there are also too many Americans who have nothing less than a flag fetish. I find it useful to recycle the expression so frequently found in discussions of the sacraments. “It’s only a symbol…” And how might the second commandment speak into this unholy worship? Moreover, I have others symbols that stir me—cross, bread and cup.
“Only in America…” followed by something interesting or commendable—uttered by someone who has never left a three-state area. The United States has a lot going for it, no doubt, all sorts of wonderful and quirky things. But I’ve spent a good deal of time in western Europe and east Asia. Lots of what we’ve got going, they do too. They enjoy freedoms and experiences and delicacies that are different than ours—but not lesser. It strikes me as similar to the challenge that happy pagans pose to Christians. Can they really be so satisfied and well-adjusted without knowing Jesus? Really, there are people who don’t secretly wish they were American?
Despite all this, I’m still a chastened patriot (I believe Jean Bethke Elshtain coined the term). It is my home. I grateful and glad for so many good things. I can’t help rooting for the Americans in the Olympics or World Cup. They’re my people and I’m theirs.
Let’s close with a few things I especially like about the United States–
Our topography. Other countries have natural beauty too, but our national park system is a gem. I love driving in the so-called “boring nothingness” of South Dakota, Wyoming and Montana. I find it cleansing and nourishing of my soul.
Our educational and religious institutions—I’m incredibly grateful for all that I have received from them, and how these places have shaped me. All sorts of churches doing all sorts of good. Scattering mustard seeds everywhere. Colleges, universities, seminaries, and an endless array of a foundations and non-profits that are incredibly generous.
Our music. I’m not a music historian, but so much amazing music has roots in America—jazz, blues, gospel, hip-hop, rock. African-Americans in New Orleans, Memphis, Detroit, and elsewhere, Jews in New York, Scotch-Irish in the Appalachians, cowboys in Oklahoma.
Happy birthday, USA!