American Patriotism: Loving Our Land as the Image of Christ
What does it mean to be an American patriot? Is it allegiance to the flag? Is it obedience to the government? Is it trust in the power of one’s military? What does being patriotic look like? Is it glorifying one’s ancestors? Is it living in the traditions of one’s forefathers? Is it pursuing the American dream? Is it honoring soldiers in the military for their victory over other nations? Is it a little bit of all of the above, and something more? What does patriotism really mean?
In the words of Pope Saint John Paul the Great, “Patriotism is a love for everything to do with our native land: its history, its traditions, its language, its natural features. It is a love which extends also to the works of our compatriots and the fruits of their genius. Every danger that threatens the overall good of our native land becomes an occasion to demonstrate that love.” An American Catholic ought to be patriotic in the sense that he ought to love his homeland and the persons of his homeland.
But what does this actually mean? Love is a term all too often misused, and for many Americans, it has been confused with pride. Although one can certainly have a healthy pride for thing which one loves, it is not necessarily the same thing and can be taken to unhealthy extremes. As history professor Clyde Wilson says, “Patriotism is the wholesome, constructive love of one’s land and people. Nationalism is the unhealthy love of one’s government, accompanied by the aggressive desire to put down others—which becomes in deracinated modern men a substitute for religious faith. Patriotism is an appropriate, indeed necessary, sentiment for people who wish to preserve their freedom; nationalism is not.”
Contrary to the popular, hegemonistic sentiment, being a patriot does not mean believing that your country is better than others. It is not worship of the state, or the military, or even of historical people or documents. To be a patriot means that you love your country, and you love the people in it. To love is to will the good of the other, doing everything possible to contribute to, uphold, and give oneself to that which is good in the other. As Patriots, we must give unreservedly for the good of our homeland. One of the most dramatic ways for someone to show that he is a true patriot is to give his life for the welfare of his land, as did a young man named Nathan Hale during the American Revolution.
In 1774, eighteen year old Nathan joined the Patriot army under General George Washington. Even though the United States of America did not yet officially exist, it was Nathan’s love of his fellow people that inspired him to defend his homeland against what he saw as political, and later military, British aggression. When American Colonel Knowlton asked his men if any of them would be willing to risk their lives to retrieve information from the enemy stationed in New York, Hale replied out of the dead silence, “I will undertake it.” He knew that the good of his country was a higher good even than his own life. After being caught by the British and convicted of treason, his final words before being hanged were: “I regret that I have but one life to give for my country.”
What better patriotism than to die for one’s country? That giving of self for the common good is what being an American is all about. Our nation was started by people who were obedient to a good higher than themselves, and it was the love of that good that sparked the fire of their patriotism and ensured our present liberties, including free speech and universal suffrage. Of course, our country is still a flawed one, often filled with brutality, pride, and blindness towards evil. In a fallen world, there will never be a perfect nation, and there will always be some injustice to speak out against. But there will also always be the good of the people in one’s homeland, which is a good worth fighting, and if need be, dying for.
But with the recognition of America’s many imperfections, each person is faced with a choice of how to respond. Some choose to place all of our hope in the government and the military, with the illusory belief that perfection can be gained on this earth with just a little more power and effort. Others choose to remain detached from our nation, eternally skeptical of the government with no love for the people under its power. In essence, they can either follow John O’Sullivan and the blind believers of Manifest Destiny, worshipping our nation and declaring it a heaven on earth, or they can follow Henry David Thoreau, and take a walk in the woods to escape our nation, refusing to be associated with its injustice at the cost of refusing to be a part of the country itself.
True patriotism is a third choice. It is not an extreme illusory love nor is it cynical isolationism. Just as every virtue, patriotism is in the middle path between these two. We do not follow the blindness of O’Sullivan or the cynicism of Thoreau. We follow the way of faith, hope, and charity. After all, to be Catholic means to be in this world but not of it. We are in this world, because Christ entered history, became man and manifests His glory in the here and now on earth. We are not of this world because the kingdom of God stretches far beyond the earth, and Christ makes us members of His kingdom by the grace of our Baptism. Nevertheless, the kingdom of God is both now and not yet. America is a community of persons on the way to the true kingdom, and to love this community is to be a patriot.
Thus we must love America, for she is beautiful and good and true. She is the image of Christ, imprinted on the soul of every citizen, radiant in some, and crucified in most. The glory of Jesus Christ shines forth in the land of the free and the home of the brave, and we must pray ever more fervently for the grace to see Him. For it is His beauty that we get a glimpse of when we gaze upon the amber waves of grain. His majesty is gleaming in the purple mountains. We owe thanks to Him for providing us with the fertile soil that produces fruit upon our plains, and have an obligation to be good stewards of the land by working with nature’s ways and not fighting against it. To Christ our King we must hold fast, and to Him we must give our lives, always remembering that wherever there is unity, goodness, truth, and beauty, there is the glory Our Lord.
The true patriot is willing to criticize the government out of love for the people, and then take action to right the wrongs being committed. We have a right to be angry when the country we love is being destroyed, but if that anger doesn’t prompt action, then it’s for nothing. Many of us are often grumbling about abortion and euthanasia, Obamacare, the HHS Mandate, gun bans, and other policies that we find abhorrent, but really, we ought to be asking ourselves, how responsible are we for allowing these injustices to enter our country? After all, we are the ones who elect our representatives. All too often, our elected officials to whom we are supposed to look up to, instead, give themselves a raise or do some other selfish act. Most politicians these days put on a false show and try to get our votes so that they can gain power and fame. And with that power they pass laws that we know to be unjust.
However, we as voters get so caught up in supporting our “party” that we forget to find out who would best protect and promote the common good. George Washington warned us of the dangers of having political parties when he said, “Political parties…are likely in the course of time…to become potent engines, by which cunning, ambitious, and unprincipled men will be enabled to subvert the power of the people and to usurp for themselves the reins of government.”
When deliberating who to vote for, we ought not worry so much about whether or not this candidate is the most “Republican” or the most “Democratic,” but rather we ought to be asking: Will this person stand for our nation’s principles and do what is good for our country, or do only what is good for himself? Is this person a just human being? Is he a patriot? After all, the power of the state does not consist in a single man, but in us, the community of people who together are under one law, an objective law, the law of justice. As Aristotle said, “The idea of a king is to be…a protector of the people.” We must support rulers of this kind and not vote for politicians who make tempting, but twisted, promises. As John F. Kennedy said, “Ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country.” Is this not what love of one’s country naturally implies?
Another apt quote comes from the writings of the philosopher and Jewish convert to Catholicism, Saint Teresa Benedicta of the Cross: “The nation doesn’t simply need what we have, it needs what we are.” We do not possess anything by our own effort. All is a gift, and thus all we have to give is the gift of ourselves which was freely given to us. Catholics are the Church, a communion of persons united in the Mystical Body of Christ. American Catholics do not owe themselves to the government, but that does not mean they should isolate themselves from their nation. Catholics must become what they are, a communion, a Church. In this way, we can have the deepest effect upon our culture and live up to the heritage of those who have gone before us.
Today, let us remember to give ourselves to our nation, unreservedly, holding nothing back out of selfish motivation, either in favor of nationalism or blind allegiance to party politics. This means we must give ourselves to Christ around us. For many, that means small, mundane sacrifices in the home, at school, or at work. Keep order in the home as far as it is in your power to do so. Maintain good friendships with your fellow citizens, helping them to tread the narrow path of righteousness. Study and think so that you may grow in understanding of Truth. Appreciate the beauty of the land itself, in the mountains and bayous, forests and fields, fruited plains and desert lands.
Work with a joyful disposition, remembering that any good you are able to do is a gift, and it is your duty to share that gift with others. Serve your country by nourishing the persons around you, both with physical and spiritual food. Speak out against injustice. Stand up for our nation’s principles. Love America, for which countless soldiers were willing to give their lives, by giving yourself to the land and its people. Love America by giving yourself to God. Love America, for she is one, true, good and beautiful. Love America, for she is an image of Christ.
By Teresa Benedicta