What is Patriotism?

Recently, Glenn Beck said on his radio talk show that the Democrats want America to lose in Iraq. Why? Because they want to prove President Bush wrong, Beck said. He then added that while some question only the judgment of those on the left, he questions their very patriotism.

This shouldn’t be surprising to those of us who listen to right-wing talk radio. Nevertheless, Beck’s comments got me thinking: what is patriotism? Is it true that people who strongly disapprove of their country’s policies are unpatriotic traitors, or is patriotism a little more complicated than that?

Well, let’s unpack this a bit. According to Beck and many others like him, to be patriotic is, at very least, to support your nation in its foreign policy endeavors, even if major mistakes have been made. After all, according to this line of thinking, defeat and embarrassment are two of the worst evils a nation can suffer, so victory must be fought for at all costs. It would seem, then, that the true patriot should want power, prosperity, and prestige for his or her nation.

But I would argue that things are substantially more complicated than that. After all, at what point does the committed patriot call on his nation to cease and desist, or to change course, when it has made a dangerous mistake that is harmful not only to its own well-being but to that of other people we share this planet with? At what point does the patriot, while affirming the necessity of fighting evil, question whether his nation’s current actions are truly working for good–or whether “staying the course” is contributing to this world’s evil forces in one way or another? Could we not agree that men like Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who fearlessly exposed the evil of Nazi Germany, were the true patriots–both in the interests of a free Germany and a free world? I am of course not comparing the United States or President Bush to Nazi Germany, as has sometimes been done; no, my point is simply to ask whether our nation cannot also make mistakes. Is it not arrogant to believe that our nation is always right, and therefore is it not patriotic to point out those times when America is hurting itself and its world neighbors?

Another question we should ask is this: in a nation that professes to be Christian, shouldn’t it be considered patriotic to hold tightly to Christian social values such as peacemaking, social justice, and the inherent value of all people? Therefore, if our nation (which claims to be Christian) is taking action that runs against such Christian teachings, do not all patriots have the duty to speak out?

In a country where we have freedom of speech, Beck and others certainly have the right to question the patriotism of liberals. But we have both the right and the duty to question his definitions.

Comments (7)

  1. Skylark

    A few quotes to get me started:

    “Patriotism has no quarrel with robust dissent.” Todd Gitlin, professor, Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism, 2006.

    “In a democracy, expressing disagreement with the government’s actions does not amount to sedition or insurrection.” Jeff Bingaman, U.S. senator, D-N.M., 2006

    It’s been ingrained in me since I was a kid that it was OK to disagree, but I had to be respectful no matter what. My parents–I was homeschooled–even went so far as to instruct me to refer to Mr. President or President Bush (because George Bush Sr. was in office then), never just Bush or “the prez” or anything derogatory.

    Part of that stuck. I’m uncomfortable with attacks on a person and painting a person as one-and-the-same as a particular decision s/he made. Now, I do refer to him as Bush these days because it’s journalistic habit to refer to people by their last names.

    An idea I find interesting is the right to free speech does not equal a right to be heard. We can say what we want. But that doesn’t mean anybody’s going to listen, or that we won’t experience consequences from society in general for what we say.

    As a reporter today, I’m even more committed that the free press is part and parcel of free speech. Praise… somebody… for Sunshine Laws about open government. I cringe when reading about courtroon trials of journalists in countries where there are no public records. As sticky as it can be sometimes here, at least here they generally cough up the documents when the reporter specifically asks for them.

    That’s enough of my scattered thoughts. Next?

  2. carl

    The United States professes to be a Christian nation? Really? I know our foreign policy is now being run directly by God (via the direct line to Bush), but I thought somewhere in the Constitution or whatever there was still this business about separation of church and state. Maybe nobody takes that stuff seriously anymore.

    Don’t get me wrong, I sympathize with the general take here. If you really care about the soul of this country, dissent these days is the ONLY kind of patriotism. But I have to question the identification of the US as a Christian nation, both from the democratic side (what about non-Christians – are they not able to be patriotic Americans?) and from my theological understanding (is it even possible for a state to be Christian? If our allegiance is to Christ, should we even claim loyalty to a state?).

    Skylark: Free press is definitely key. The US is pretty decent overall with regards to governmental openness – there are places (some European countries) that are better, and plenty that are worse. But though it may often be true on the local level, (increasingly) on the federal level I don’t think it’s true that “if a journalists asks, they give up the documents.”

  3. eric

    More complicated or not: have you seen any Rightwingers called unpatriotic for questioning the policies of a more liberal president? Just like “just war theory,” once there is a metric that is applied honestly, I’ll start to take it seriously. Until then “unpatriotic” is just a silly insult as much as “just war theory” is just an excuse, and you shouldn’t even get me started on emboldening the enemies.

    As for the Christian bit, I was hoping to (cleverly) reference the dollar bill’s “Novus Ordo Seclorum,” but was quickly set straight by Wikipedia. So much for a good idea. Turns out the Freemasons explanation is also considered a conspiracy theory. I guess I’ll defer to Carl on that one.

    When it comes to comparing current US policy to that of Nazi Germany – I’ve heard holocaust survivors that I know well and trust talk about the frightening similarities here to early developments in the Third Reich. That’s good enough for me. Why back down from a potentially powerful analogy?

  4. Nathan Eanes

    Thanks for your comments all!

    Carl– I didn’t mean to imply that I believe the U.S. is a Christian nation. I meant it more tongue-in-cheek. What I was hoping to get across is the absurdity of how so many Americans will preach about how the U.S. is “Christian,” but then when you talk about the things Christ actually taught (peacemaking, the dangers of wealth, etc), they get strangely uncomfortable about actually applying those principles in our nation.

    Other than that, I certainly agree with you when you say, “But I have to question the identification of the US as a Christian nation, both from the democratic side (what about non-Christians – are they not able to be patriotic Americans?) and from my theological understanding (is it even possible for a state to be Christian? If our allegiance is to Christ, should we even claim loyalty to a state?)”

    Eric– You may be right about the Nazi thing. I tend to back away from theories like that for fear of being sidelined (mainstream people are more likely to listen to you if you don’t say things like that), but then again, maybe it is wrong to mince words. After all, I certainly have thought those same things about comparisons with the Nazis.

  5. Nathan Eanes

    Eric– BTW, I think it would be interesting if you posted specifics about America from the people you know who survived the Holocaust. Those voices need to be heard.

  6. carl

    hey Nathan – oops, my bad. So hard to see that tongue in that cheek on the internet :-) Thanks for the post.

  7. eric

    It’s a good idea. The question is weather I can recreate a context in which they feel comfortable saying such risky things – or remember more specifics off hand.

    What I do remember had to do with the patriot act and removing individual rights, using fear propaganda as the excuse, and beginning to crack down based on profiling. I would also mention on my own that Hitler was a devout Christian (of sorts), and had strong American support (even among Mennonites) till surprisingly late. As I understand, Mennonites were impressed with his agricultural policies early on. That’s not meant to drift the conversation, but to point out that EVIL doesn’t get tattooed on anyone’s forehead until quite a bit later in the process.

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