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Making Peace with Patriotism

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.

It is pretty much mandatory that every public official wear an American flag lapel pin at all times. What once was a nice option, now and then, for those so inclined, has become imposed orthodoxy.

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!

Steve Mathonnet-VanderWell

Steve Mathonnet-VanderWell is a recently retired minister of the Reformed Church in America. He has been the convener of the Reformed Journal’s daily blog since its inception in 2011. He and his wife, Sophie, reside in Des Moines, Iowa.


  • mstair says:

    “While God is not even mentioned in The U.S. Constitution, The Ten Commandments are imperative statements from God. As a human-made set of laws, The Constitution attempts to reflect the universal rules governing how the human species relate to each other. The Ten Commandments only devotes the second half of its content to human-to-human relationships. The first half (in priority and quantity) is devoted to the correct relationship between creature and Creator.
    Of that section, the two largest parts are God’s command against graven images and to keep the sabbath. This demonstrates the essence of what our understanding of our Creator and God must be. God IS mysteriously real. He cannot be captured in any object over which we may have any control, and a considerable, dedicated portion of our days on our linear timeline is to be spent contemplating, discovering, and relating to Him.”

    Excerpt From: Mike Stair. “The World’s Favorite Bible Verses.” MS Peabooks, 2013. iBooks.

  • While I am a bit older than you, your experiences remind me of some of mine. Idolatry is the word I often think of in the context of much of what passes for American patriotism. Thanks for your thoughts!

  • Harris says:

    Zack Beauchamp at Vox, points to the essay on patriotism by Alisdair McIntyre, Is Patriotism a Virtue?. Beauchamp cites this interesting paragraph:

    “I understand the story of my life in such a way that it is part of the history of my family or of this farm or of this university or of this countryside; and I understand the story of the lives of other individuals around me as embedded in the same larger stories, so that I and they share a common stake in the outcome of that story and in what sort of story it both is and is to be: tragic, heroic, comic. A central contention of the morality of patriotism is that I will obliterate and lose a central dimension of the moral life if I do not understand the enacted narrative of my own individual life as embedded in the history of my country. For if I do not understand it I will not understand what I owe to others or what others owe to me, for what crimes of my nation I am bound to make reparation, for what benefits to my nation I am bound to feel gratitude.”

    On a more mundane level, I attended the Hollyhock Lane Parade here in Grand Rapids. It is never the parade that leaves me feeling patriotic, but the gathering afterward, in the alley. There a collection of neighbors enact the rituals: an invocation. the Pledge, the National Anthem, a patriotic speech, awards for floats, “God Bless America.” Oh, and of course, a jazz band. Far from the sanctities of Official Patriotic acts, these are acts of the neighborhood, signs of how we are bound together. On a clear blue morning, surrounded by friends, seeing a mixed crowd of races, ages, and (for the knowledgeable) political convictions — it leaves one with hope.

  • Clyde says:

    Thanks, Steve. Well written. Good thoughts. Resembles my own journey with patriotism. I posted your piece on Facebook.

  • Mark K says:

    Thanks for this Steve! Check out the first segment (10 minutes or so) of this past weekend’s ‘On the Media’ for a great piece comparing patriotism in Canada and US. No surprise, it sounds like the Canadians, in general, have a more humble approach to appreciating their country and its history.

  • Peggy Hanna says:

    “Patriotism, Peace and Vietnam: A Memoir” is the title of my book (written just before the War in Iraq) self-published in 2003. My journey from unquestioning conservative Catholic mother of five to peace activist in the Midwest mirrors your essay. Although those involved in the peace movement were called unpatriotic, we believed ourselves to be exercising the highest form of patriotism. I remain active in the peace movement as a person of faith and committed patriot.

  • Thank you all for your comments and input. I appreciatethem very much.
    Harris, thanks for the MacIntyre quote. He’s always worth reading. I hear him suggesting that patriotism places us within something larger than ourselves, and thereby curbs selfish individualism. All of us are part of multiple overlapping communities, but as a Christian, the nation-state is not my primary community. Moreover, loyalty to the nation-state, especially it seems–the USA, grows like kudzu. Easily, sometimes dangerously. As for the Hollyhock Lane Parade, it sounds charming, and a good way to begin the day.

  • Daniel Meeter says:

    Well done, Steve.

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