THE MEANING OF PATRIOTISM
In the July 7, 2008 issue of Time, we are treated as readers to an opinion piece entitled "Patriot Games," written by Peter Beinart. Beinart argues that "conservatives tend to see patriotism as an inheritance from a glorious past, [while] liberals see it as the promise of a future that redeems the past." To give you an idea how he goes about supporting this thesis, he points out that President Ronald Reagan viewed American history as "the saga of brave, good-hearted men and women battling daunting odds but forever trying to do the right thing." President Kennedy, by contrast, "downplayed [all that], urging Americans to instead grab hold of the future." We Americans, according to President Kennedy's patriotic sense, could little afford to "rest on our achievements. . . ."
I confess that I do not find the distinction Beinart draws between conservatives and liberals to be especially enlightening. The trouble is that both ways of understanding patriotism are born out of fantasy. Conservatives fantasize backward, while liberals fantasize forward. Patriotism, then, for Beinart, is fantasy either way.
Yet the truth is that one group is no more influenced by the past or by the future than the other. Genuine patriotism is not about fantasy, but values, their implementation into policy, and the application of policy to stubborn fact. Consider again Presidents Kennedy and Reagan. President Kennedy's patriotism was firmly rooted in the parameters of the past when, during the Cuban Crisis, he opposed the placement within this hemisphere of missiles that happened to have been aimed directly at us. To have allowed them to stay would have been to turn his back on all that Americans have traditionally held dear. He knew that the citizenry would never tolerate compromising the safety and wellbeing of the country in that way. President Reagan's patriotism might likewise be said to have looked to the future, when he supported and strove for the dismantling of the Wall. That was sure to change the world for generations to come.
The point is that patriotism is not about an attitude toward the past or the future, although a patriot's vision is both retrospective and prospective. Patriotism is rather about the affirmation of and investment in a constellation of values, which are situated at the heart of the American experience. They are values that we invoked in the past and, so long as there is an America, will appeal to in the future. These values constitute the cornerstones of a "public faith," which is discernible throughout the pages of American history. That there is a beneficent God who has providentially blessed this nation and to whom it is accountable, who has endowed its people with the inalienable rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness and who has given to them, collectively, a mission to humanity and to the world are basic tenets of American public faith and culture.
This does not mean that America's tradition of public faith negates the right of conscience. Atheists and agnostics can also, of course, be patriots by supporting the nation's culture. That does not change the fact that the culture has for almost 400 years embodied an undeniably religious, and broadly biblical, spirit.
The antithesis of patrotism consists of discounting the nation's core values or, to put it another way, attempting to re-invent the culture according to discordant values.
I am doubtful whether John McCain or Barack Obama shares my understanding of patriotism. Senator McCain maintains that "[t]he patriot honors the duties, the loyalties, the inspirations and the habits of mind that bind us together as Americans." This is a true statement so far as it goes, but why does he not name the ties that bind us together as a people? The Senator urges that "[p]atriotism is another way of saying service to a cause greater than self-interest." And what "cause" might that be, Senator? To contend that it boils down simply to "countless acts of [human] love, kindness and courage" is another way of speaking of humanism, is it not? Sorry, but this country's culture is not, nor has it ever been, humanistic.
Senator Obama, on the other hand, couches patriotism in terms of the love and defense of common ideals, such as the right to participate freely in the political process, to be secure in one's own home, and to have an idea and to start a business. These are important civil liberties alright, never to be taken for granted, but they are predicated upon a public faith and culture that make them possible. The constitution grew out of and continues to be buttressed by a distinct American religioculture. Why not mention that, Senator?
Pardon me for saying so, but I think both Senators McCain and Obama fail to explain the transcendent dimension of patriotism. This failure suggests that they sadly overlook a vital aspect of the term's meaning. Please note that I am not declaring either man unpatriotic. I am stating only that he appears to be at a loss when articulating the meaning of a significant term. Yet this deficiency on the part of each leaves me feeling strangely distant from both.
I wonder whether the United States of America will ever again be led by a heroic figure like Abraham Lincoln, whose sense of patriotism was always realistic, poignant, and informed by the transcendent. Joseph R. Fornieri, in his book Abraham Lincoln's Political Faith, properly describes Lincoln's political vision as one of "biblical republicanism." The Gettysburg Address and his Second Inaugural are stark examples. Yet the vibrance of Lincoln's patriotism, in my opinion, shines most brightly through one of his lesser known public statements. On the journey to his first term in the Oval Office, he contemplated the monumental tasks ahead of him. He stated the following to the New Jersey Senate: "I shall be most happy indeed if I shall be an humble instrument in the hands of the Almighty, and of this, his almost chosen people . . ." What a magnificent way to phrase it! And we continue to be blessed by his insightful words!
May I wish all of you -- "his almost chosen people" -- a delightful fourth of July.
July 2, 2008