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After 279 days and 2,895 miles aboard our 27-foot boat on the Great American Loop, my wife, Jill and I returned to our normal routine in July. We did not finish the entire 6,000 miles due to some unexpected delays.

Even if we never finish our uncompleted segment, it was still the trip of a lifetime. We cruised from Michigan to Florida in the fall and winter, then hauled the boat back in the spring to cruise northern Michigan and Canada. Clearing customs with the Canadian Border Security Agency on a boat was a unique way to enter another country.

Another unique element of international marine travel is the nautical courtesy flag—“When you enter the waters of a foreign country, tradition holds that you immediately raise the flag of that country (while still flying your home country’s flag) as a courtesy to the nation you are visiting.” 

The courtesy flag got me thinking. I pondered as I wandered the North Channel and offer three reflections that may feel familiar to other Reformed Journal readers.

* * * * *

First, I consider myself patriotic. I have emotional responses to American images. I have refereed basketball games for 28 years and I become irritated with crewmates who don’t put hand to heart during the pregame national anthem. In my mind, Saigon will always be Saigon. The name change to Ho Chi Minh City reminds me of America’s ignominy during that era, culminating in the city’s fall in 1975. As much as I love to visit there, I feel a deep sense of forlorn for how things could have ended better for my country and with democracy for Vietnam. I find the most moving segment of Ken Burns’ Vietnam War documentary to be the last four minutes of Episode 9—the return of the POWs. The footage is overlaid by Ray Charles’ “America the Beautiful.” I’ve watched it dozens of times and I still cry. I also get emotional when I visit The Wall, which I mentioned in a previous RJ essay (as did Ron Wells recently, about visiting a brother in arms there). 

Conversely, I rarely cry in church. If my faith expression demonstrates what clinical psychologists might call reduced affective display (perhaps a disposition of many in the Reformed tradition), my patriotic expression does not. I think it was my patriotism that prompted my desire to fly a courtesy flag. I wanted to share my appreciation for the national loyalty that I feel with my northern neighbors. 

* * * * *

Second, sometimes I am embarrassed by my patriotism. I can’t fly a Canadian courtesy flag on my boat because I must first fly a United States flag — which I don’t. Why not? Maybe I don’t want people to assume things about me that aren’t true.

Through much of our boat trip from Michigan to Florida, I saw American flags that were too often paired with “let’s go Brandon” signs or other indecencies. As a follower of Jesus, my embarrassment is compounded by the despairing mix of Christian, American, and idolatrous symbols, which Jeff Munroe and Scott Hoezee recently observed in RJ. Given the current climate, I am probably not alone in the cognitive conflict between my patriotism and its current collateral associations.

In April, we took a break from the boat and flew to the Jersey Shore. We visited Reformed Churches churches with Hope College connections. But the trip was mostly a Springsteen pilgrimage—visiting his boyhood homes in Freehold, his current ranch in Colts Neck, his “Born to Run” house in Long Branch, and the historic Stone Pony in Asbury Park.

An unexpected highlight was attending an event to honor Steve Van Zandt—E Street Band guitarist and oft-regarded inventor of the Shore music genre. The ceremony renamed his hometown street in Middletown to Van Zandt Way. With only a couple hundred people in attendance on a weekday morning, this is as close as I will ever get to a rock legend. (I am lurking in the background of this picture in my Hope College orange.)

One portion of Van Zandt’s pithy remarks resonated with me the most—how he learned the importance of patriotism from his stepfather, who in the 1950s moved from Bergen County to marry Van Zandt’s divorced Italian Catholic mother and gave him his Dutch last name: 

He was an ex-Marine, Goldwater Republican. . . Now my form of patriotism would go in a slightly different direction. But the common ground was the true meaning of patriotism, which has no party affiliation, no matter how they try to co-opt it. But it is simply a love of our country and the ideas that it stands for and the ideals that we continue to fight for. 

Van Zandt’s patriotism is what I seek — but feel guarded to display. Perhaps I blame my reticence too much on the current (to use Van Zandt’s word) co-opters. But in fact, this is not the first time we have seen such co-opting in our lifetimes. In 1988, Bush 41 goaded Mike Dukakis into silly disputes about flag burning and the Massachusetts governor was feckless to respond. Progressives aren’t guiltless either. After the first presidential debate in 2008, then MSNBC commentator Keith Olbermann offered a gleeful gotcha by noting that it was Obama who wore a flag pin on his suit while McCain’s lapel was barren.

Still, the current co-opters are undeniably more vulgar and divisive in their techniques, with phrases such as “they hate America” or “the radical-left thugs that live like vermin within the confines of our country.” All the while, most supporters, many of them Christians, are unwilling to rebuke the rhetoric. How I long for the days of John McCain’s firm but kind correction of his supporters who didn’t trust Obama because “he’s an Arab” or who were “scared of an Obama presidency.”

* * * * *

    Third, I confess that I have uncharitable thoughts about my fellow patriots. Both Canadian and American boaters fly flags with noticeable frequency. But it seemed different to me in Canada. I assume that the flag-flying boaters in the North Channel don’t represent only the Canadian political extreme.

    Regrettably, I don’t have the same generous attribution of my own compatriots who fly the US flag. I assume flag-waving Americans are all alike, a reverse example of what social psychologists call the outgroup homogeneity effect—thinking members of an outgroup are more similar to each other and that members of an ingroup are diverse. Instead, I assume the opposite: Canadian flag-wavers are diverse and American flag-wavers are all the same. Given my months in US marinas, perhaps my overgeneralization is understandable. 

    Someday, I hope to restart my loop. Maybe by then all of this nonsense will be behind us and I can rid myself of my current thinking. And then flag-waving will be fun again. When that time comes, I’ll have Old Glory and the courtesy Maple Leaf ready.

    Until then, my patriotism, and my boat, will remain flagless.

    Scott VanderStoep

    Scott VanderStoep is a professor of psychology and former dean for social sciences at Hope College in Holland, Michigan.


    • Tom says:

      I have many of the same thoughts about flying the flag. After retiring from 28 years in the military I hesitate to fly an American flag in W Michigan because I do not agree with most of what those who do fly one or wave it from their pickup trucks stand for.
      I appreciate your quote from VanZandt about patriotism, and in that spirit will fly an American flag today, longing for the ideals of this flawed nation to become a reality.

    • Keith De Witt says:

      I will never hesitate to fly our flag. I will always be proud to fly it and be proud of the USA!

    • marcia Beth Eason says:

      I know exactly what you are referring to as a kayaker in the Florida Keys. However, I guess I have a different take on it. I fly my American flag proudly, with my Biden sign in my front yard. I WILL NOT allow small thinking hateful people to intimidate me into hiding my love of my country.

    • Pat says:

      I do not have the same feelings any more either. The hateful rhetoric often displayed on vehicles flying the flag is unnerving. Couple that with a fundamental disagreement with “what makes America great again” and the me first or America first agenda and the flag often represents principles of which I am not proud.

    • Steven Tryon says:

      This is why my front porch has not only a US flag flying, but also a Pride flag and the flag of Puerto Rico. See The Banner from two years ago for the photograph and explanation.
      Steve, the old Army helicopter jockey

    • John Hubers says:

      European friends who were in our churches in the Arabian Gulf often expressed a curious puzzlement at the American obsession with flags. They would fly flags on occasion, but not with the same kind of patriotic zeal.

      My own reflection on this has led me to wonder if being a nation of immigrants (all except Native Americans) hasn’t given us an ingrained lack of self esteem, as those who exhibit the most braggadocio are often those with an unsettled nature. We assert our pride not because we believe we are the best, but because we fear we aren’t. And the aggressive flag waving is indicative of this.

    • Judy M Hansma says:

      As a Canadian your sentiment has echoes here too. During the truckers convoy in Ottawa many of us felt they stole our country’s flag. You almost didn’t want to fly the flag in case you would be associated with that movement. It has since returned to the way it was before.

    • Steve Mathonnet-VanderWell says:

      Scott, I often tear up in church, but rarely about patriotism. I don’t put my hand over my heart during the national anthem. I don’t fly a flag. Still consider myself a chastened patriot. But I agree that Springsteen and VanZandt express a kind of patriotism I can get on board with. Good post. Thanks

    • Rowland Van Es, Jr says:

      I don’t want one in my church for the same reasons you don’t have an American flag on your boat.

    • Jodi Noorman MacLean says:

      Scott, I loved this blog post. We are boaters and have many of the same questions and feelings. Boaters do love to fly their flags and it’s amusing to ponder why that is. I think we all love the feeling of putting things up into the wind (our sails, our colors, our symbols, our own upturned faces on a beautiful day). Over this holiday weekend I have seen the flag presented in some really inappropriate ways, however, I REFUSE to cede the fun of flag-flying to the MAGA crowd. When you see the small flag on our vessel it means we are Americans, grateful for those who founded this country, and grateful for our opportunity to live in it. I love the Courtesy Flag idea and look forward to flying Canada’s flag, along with ours, when we cross into those waters. Thanks for your thoughtful reflection. Your trip sounds amazing!

    • Jennifer A Bryson says:

      Thanks for expressing what I have wrestled with for a few years now as I love my “patriotic holiday clothing” but recently have expressed that I do not want people assuming they know things about my beliefs or my politics simply based on what I am choosing with wear to celebrate the 4th of July.

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