‘God bless America, land that I love, Stand beside her and guide her, Through the night with the light from above’ [Irving Berlin, songwriter].
For obvious reasons, the Fourth of July, or shortly thereafter, seems like an apropos moment to reflect on patriotism. This is particularly the case since in the last few years many have questioned whether patriotism is morally permissible. Some maintain that the flag represents all the immoral structures and injustices of the past, such as slavery, and racism in the present. Others might identify patriotism with a nationalistic bent that can lead to jingoism or belligerence. Is patriotism actually good?
Merriam-Webster defines patriotism as a, ‘love for or devotion to one’s country.’ Love and devotion for one’s family, homeland, or country of adoption is not only good, it is virtuous.
In the Summa Theologica, St. Thomas Aquinas writes that we are indebted first to God for his excellence and the various benefits received from him. However, he continues, we are also indebted to ‘our parents and our country, that have given us birth and nourishment.’
In ‘Orthodoxy’ G. K. Chesterton writes, ‘If men loved Pimlico [a London neighborhood] as mothers love children… because it is THEIRS, Pimlico in a year or two might be fairer than Florence’ . That is to say, when you love someone or something, you cherish them enough to make them beautiful. You build them up. However, the starting point is love, or in the case of a country, patriotism.
I do not think that a healthy love of country pretends that everything in our past or present is perfect. No individual, no group, and no country can claim that. A mature love of any person is aware of his or her shortcomings. The same holds true for one’s country.
However, recognition of a nation’s shortcomings should not lead to a wholesale rejection of her symbols, and the community and principles those symbols represent. Chesterton continues, ‘The evil of the pessimist is, then, not that he chastises [others]… but that he does not love what he chastises’’ [Orthodoxy, 61]. To know ourselves first loved makes us more receptive to constructive criticism. Whereas, nothing but constant complaint tears down. If this holds true for individuals, it also holds true for groups and nations.
Beyond the initial affection born of gratitude, how can we actively love our country more? Below are a few concrete suggestions:
Learn more about her history and institutions. You cannot love what you do not know. Find good histories of America, ones with a Judeo-Christian worldview. Become familiar with some of the founding documents, especially the Constitution. One exceptional author and historian worth mentioning is David McCullough.
Pray for America. ‘Unless the LORD guard the city, in vain does the guard keep watch.’ [Ps 127:1]. We must be men and women of prayer, and we must intentionally intercede for our homeland.
Seek to do God’s will in your life. This is the best thing you can do for your family and country. Regarding the Civil War, Abraham Lincoln is quoted as saying, ‘Sir, my concern is not whether God is on our side; my greatest concern is to be on God's side.’
Strengthen your family life. The family is the fundamental building block of society. A healthy family is an invaluable contribution to the country.
Foster reasoned and respectful dialogue with those who think differently. We cannot interact at a meaningful level only with those who think like us. We also should not settle for ‘agreeing to disagree.’ Could we not seek truth together in a mature dialogue?
Evangelize. Do not be afraid to share the faith with those in the community, in the workplace, at school.
Get involved in the local community. Help at the parish, or the school board, the volunteer fire department, or even politics. An involved citizenry indicates and promotes a healthier country.
Let us thank God for the many graces we have received as Americans, work for a better America, and ask God to continue to bless America.
Fr. John Bullock, LC