I am in second grade. I breathe in the crisp, fall air and recite the Pledge of Allegiance with my classmates: "...one nation, under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.” Day after day, each of us eagerly awaits our chance to pull the rope which enables the American flag to wave proudly in the schoolyard.
But today, the American flag is sometimes viewed as an exclusive and offensive symbol. Anti-Americanism is popular.
So what are we to make of the virtue of patriotism?
Patriotism vs. Nationalism
When it comes to our duties as citizens across the globe, the Catechism speaks of contributing to society through “truth, justice, solidarity, and freedom” (see CCC 2239). No matter our country of origin, we are to love and serve our country with a spirit of gratitude. To be patriotic is to live out the theological virtue of charity and then strive to make each of our countries better.
What it doesn’t speak of is nationalism, which would be a disordered love of one’s country paired with hostility towards other cultures and countries. To be truly patriotic means to help one’s country uphold its ideals while also recognizing the dignity of every human person no matter their culture. Nationalism backs the government, even when it goes against morality, while also harboring animosity towards people from different backgrounds.
The Founding of an Ideal
It is true that there has been a devastating amount of violence and riots in the U.S. over the past couple of years. Our mainstream American culture often stands in opposition to what we believe as Christians. Our government seems broken, petty, and ineffective. Social phenomena like cancel culture, wokeness, and censorship can sometimes make it feel like our freedom of speech and religious liberty are being stolen from us. In light of all of the division, it is natural to ask whether our country is still worthy of admiration and loyalty.
Most of us learned about the founding of our nation in school, and with that the the simple yet radical idea upon which it was founded:
...that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. // Declaration of Independence
We learned that both at our nation’s founding as well as throughout her history, many Americans have given their very lives in defense of that ideal. What are we to make of this unabashed patriotism of our forefathers? Were they mistaken all along? Is it an idea which was once noble and necessary, but whose time has passed? Or is there more for us to learn?
The Keeping of an Ideal
I believe the most important thing the Founding Fathers would have to say about the present state of our union would not be the basic ideas of equality, liberty, and God-given rights which they enshrined in our country’s founding documents. I say that not because these ideas are no longer relevant (quite the contrary), but simply because these ideals have more or less won. These principles now sit at the foundation of not only America, but effectively all of the West, as well as many other parts of the world.
I believe in our modern world, the trait we need to learn from our Founding Fathers is not the ideal itself, but a willingness to fight to keep that ideal. Benjamin Franklin was once asked by a woman after a session of the Constitutional Convention, “What kind of a government have you given us?”
“A republic,” he replied, “if you can keep it.”
He knew that, as we can clearly see now, our nation is only as strong as our willingness to remain committed to its ideals. Similarly, John Adams warned that without virtue, “there can be no Republican Government, nor any real liberty.”
These men were not merely critics, they were men of action. They didn’t just talk about what our nation ought to be, they debated, argued, fought, and even dueled with each other as they hammered out the details of the United States.
The Man in the Arena
Just as in every generation, it is easy to be critical. America has flaws. But she has never and will never need citizens who only want to criticize her. In this light, the words of Theodore Roosevelt’s famous “Man in the Arena” speech ring as clear and as true as ever:
It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.
America needs citizens who will fight for the ideals upon which she was founded, Christians who understand the dignity of every human person to raise their voices, and patriots who are not discouraged by her flaws but enamored by the promise of what she can be.
Love of Country
C.S. Lewis writes that patriotism is a “love of country.” Hopefully, this love of country pushes us to help her be better.
The United States is a nation founded with great ideals. As Americans and as Christians we are charged with upholding these ideals and being worthy of them.
In celebration of our country, we can take guidance from John Adams who suggested in a letter to his wife, Abigail, that the day “ought to be commemorated, as the Day of Deliverance by solemn Acts of Devotion to God Almighty,” a day celebrated with “Pomp and Parade… Games, Sports,” and “Bonfires.”
How will you celebrate the founding of this great nation?