Lately, it seems everything from masks to hugs has become a political statement. With the fourth of July upon us, patriotism and remembering those who fought for our freedom have become the new tug of war. What strikes me about the patriotism card is it tends to get played by people who’ve never been in the military, let alone see a battlefield. Honestly, I’m not interested in what these people think—they’re usually selling something. I’m much more interested in what veterans think about patriotism.

My grandpa fought in the European theater of World War II. Shortly before he died he made a recording of his recollections of the war. Each tape begins with John Philip Sousa’s The Stars and Stripes Forever, followed by his description of war. He landed on the beaches of Normandy shortly after D-Day, coming on shore with the carnage of battle all around him. He always liked to say his brother Ole, who was in the battle of Iwo Jima, was one of the soldiers raising the flag. I remember asking him why he never participated in the commemorations and parades on memorial day or the fourth of July. “That’s for the pencil pushers,” he’d say. “Most of the people I know who were in battle aren’t interested in that sort of thing.”

My dad feels the same way. He was in Vietnam, in the thick of battle, flying helicopters. Unlike my grandpa, he doesn’t want to talk about it. I remember asking him the same question about holidays, he gave me the same answer—it’s usually the people who didn’t fight in battle who like the parades. Not that he isn’t patriotic—he likes to watch the festivities on TV, and has ideas about what’s right or wrong with our country—but for both my grandpa and my dad patriotism isn’t showy, and it doesn’t have to look the same for everyone. It’s interesting to hear some veterans talk about how they fought for people to have the freedom to protest, to kneel, and speak out against injustice. Even if they don’t agree, they fought so people could have that right.

This fourth of July I’m grateful for the people in my life who served in the military, those who fought overseas as the original “anti-fascists”, and those who just felt it was their duty. Even though we might have different political views, we can agree that what makes America great is the freedom to express our beliefs, to argue about them with friends and family, and seek justice and the common good as best we can. This, for me anyway, is the true meaning of patriotism.

Jason Lief

Dr. Jason Lief teaches courses in Christian education and youth ministry. A Northwestern College graduate, he served as the chaplain for Pella (Iowa) Christian High School while earning a master’s degree in theology from Wheaton College Graduate School. He also completed a doctorate in practical theology from Luther Seminary. He previously taught theology and youth ministry at Dordt College for 10 years. Dr. Lief is the author of “Poetic Youth Ministry: Loving Young People by Learning to Let Them Go” and "Christianity and Heavy Metal as Impure Sacred Within the Secular West: Transgressing the Sacred.”

5 Comments

  • RLG says:

    Thanks, Jason, for your thoughts on patriotism. Most of what you say is true and I appreciate it. You are right about the people who like to talk about the wars. It’s those who never participated in a war who want to talk about it and glamorize it. I fought in the Vietnam war. I didn’t do it because I wanted to. I was forced to. I was drafted into service. The army asked me what I wanted to do and where I wanted to go (the “dream sheet”) and then sent me to me to Vietnam. There I got to watch many of my new formed friends get killed and I got to kill others myself. All for a war that few took pride in. Is it any wonder that few war veterans find war something to rejoice about?

  • Mark says:

    Thanks for helping to put this 4th in perspective. I am kind of caught in the middle of the parties you mention. I served in Vietnam but as a non-combatant, a musician in a band that traveled a lot. I came into contact with many Vietnamese, and got to see Vietnamese life apart from the devastating conflict. To this day I find it difficult to stand when Veterans are asked to do so just because I was safe and was able to see a a lot without the trauma so many experienced. It does help me to hear that those who were so clearly in harms way and who bore the trauma of war resist the so-called patriotism you identify. Thanks again!

  • Jim says:

    You’re spot on. A great aid in my own anti war activism re Vietnam was the model of some male middle school teachers: WWII vets all who said that war was a terrible thing to be avoided if at all possible. No rah rah from them, just memories of sober duty that should give on to nobler, happier aspirations. Great skepticism of the chicken hawks who have steered the US into its 21st century wars.

  • Rowland Van Es, Jr. says:

    “Even though we might have different political views, we can agree that what makes America great is the freedom to express our beliefs, to argue about them with friends and family, and seek justice and the common good as best we can. This, for me anyway, is the true meaning of patriotism.” Yes, but America is not the only democracy that has this or tries to do this. Are we really great in seeking justice and common good anymore? Just asking as a fellow patriot who can see our weaknesses as well as our strengths. If we are only as strong as our weakest link, we’re not that strong.

    • Rowland Van Es, Jr. says:

      Now, after 45’s speech on the 4th of July I stand corrected because he just informed all of us that “The American Republic stands before you today as the greatest, most exceptional, and most virtuous nation in the history of the world.” Wow, OMG, how did I not know this?? My bad I guess…

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