At this point in history, one might think that patriotism would be at an all time high. Particularly at this time of the year, one might expect it to be cresting. But I would suggest that many of the essential aspects of patriotism are in short supply today. What passes for patriotism on display today may be more about nostalgia and feeling good than it is a mindset that befits our history and is relevant to the present.
What does it mean to be patriotic? Does it consist merely of various—too often–empty expressions of love for—and pride in—one’s country? For too many, that is where it appears to begin—and end. As an aside it might be instructive to remember that those we routinely refer to as “patriots” –our Revolutionary heroes –were regarded as traitors by their government.
At this time of year we put on a good show. Certainly our “Freedom isn’t free” and “God Bless America” bumper stickers defy anyone to doubt where we stand. We gain an extra measure of credibility as patriots by displaying the flag and adorning our vehicles with “Support Our Troops” magnets.
But is patriotism really measured by such things? Bumper sticker patriotism may make us feel good but is hardly a substitute for the real thing.
In the early 1770’s John Adams, the man who would become our second President, defended the British troops who stood accused after the so-called Boston Massacre! The man arguably most responsible for convincing Jefferson to write the Dec of Independence a few years later didn’t accept the version of events pushed by Revere and others who might be thought of as super patriots.
Similarly, in the late 1790’s, in a letter to Jefferson, Adams confided that, “If Patrick Henry (another of the super patriots) had anything to do with the American Revolution, I don’t want anyone to think I had anything to do with it.” In today’s terminology, Adams might have dubbed Patrick Henry a “wacko.” Adams’ aversion to being associated with Patrick Henry’s extremism was yet another example of Adams’ ability to soberly assess reality, behave rationally and not be swept up in the type of hysteria that swirled around him much of his life.
Imagine how useful such an ability would have been in the hysterical period leading up to our involvement in Iraq.
Unless I miss my guess, Tom Paine, the transplanted Englishman who succeeded so admirably in convincing budding revolutionaries that he was more than equal to the task of popularizing treason, might wonder to what extent we are “summer soldiers and sunshine patriots” who put away what passes for patriotism the week after all the hoopla gives way to another workweek. Is it possible that bumper stickers and magnets will suffice to meet our patriotic responsibilities until July, 2009?
How should out patriotism be defined when the object of our professed devotion faces a serious challenge—or challenges too numerous to itemize? How readily are we blinded by those who use emotional appeals to manipulate our love of country? Has the intellectual independence and courage of John Adams fallen victim to opinion polls, mass media and our hectic lifestyle? Have the priorities required of the citizens in a democracy become a casualty of progress and complacency? Might our conduct insult the vision and courage of the founders? Does it belittle the sacrifices of all who have gone before us building and defending a glorious dream and a noble experiment? Do we have the strength to address misconduct in our elected leadership? Or are we inclined to allow the subject to be changed amid assertions of our country’s greatness while we wrap ourselves in its flag? Is the price of liberty no longer “eternal vigilance?”
Jefferson noted that, “A nation which expects to be both ignorant and free expects what never was and never will be.” A democratic society demands more of its citizens than a dictatorship. YOU are expected to provide vigilance, informed input and participation. A democratic society’s challenges must be addressed as they materialize to keep it from breaking down. You might say the periodic preventive maintenance it demands is similar to that required of an automobile. A democratic society, too, is a type of vehicle meant to ensure its members are able to enjoy life and liberty and experience happiness. It must be vigilantly maintained. Problems cannot be ignored by those it serves.
Does patriotism then sometimes have too limited a definition? For too many, I believe it does. It is, at best, a part time job for which we often have not been sufficiently trained. We understand military service to be an aspect of it, but what else does it consist of aside from bumper stickers that identify us as proud Americans and magnets that proclaim support for our troops?
To me, being patriotic is a full time, everyday responsibility. It requires that we further the interests of our country to the limits of our ability to comprehend them.
Every one of us certainly defines our ongoing commitment to our country differently. And it isn’t necessarily the case that those who include in their expressions of patriotism the display of magnets and bumper stickers do nothing else to further their country’s interests. For some, however, such display may have become a substitute for a more meaningful commitment.
Such a commitment might include practicing tolerance for diversity and strengthening the community through various types of service. Reaching out to those in need through acts of kindness and charity would count for a great deal. Informing ourselves about important issues to the best of our abilities matters. Exercising our freedoms to speak, assemble and protest is vital. Taking the Constitution seriously, defending it when necessary, and holding our elected officials accountable are important aspects of patriotic citizenship. Vowing not to be fooled as much as we have in the past might be a worthy resolution. Affording respect for others regardless of their condition in life is in our country’s interest because all of us matter. Giving an honest day’s labor for our pay and taking pride in whatever we do makes our country stronger.
In short, there is room to greatly expand the concept of what constitutes the behavior of patriots.
More than 15 years ago, the former director of the E.P.A., Russell Train, wrote a speech that awakened many Evangelicals to the imperative of environmental stewardship. “Caring for the Creation” was a speech that appealed to all religions to unite in an effort to save the earth. It challenged the unspoken premise that man’s purpose was to establish dominion over it. It must not escape us that, as the planet goes, we shall also go. For Train, the devout must become thoughtful stewards of God’s Creation. To ignore this imperative was to disrespect the Almighty and the Teachings of prophets—Eastern and Western.
“Whatsoever you doeth unto the least of these, you doeth unto me” has, since Sunday school, been one of my favorite Biblical references. Valuing what we have been blessed with, and respecting what even the humblest among us has to offer, would serve our interests while demonstrating appreciation for God’s gifts. Train’s speech and the response of religious Communities to the challenge of environmental stewardship is relevant to a discussion of patriotism in my view. It says to me that we are capable of getting it and is, therefore, hopeful. It may also be said that stewardship of our environment is properly viewed as a responsibility of patriotism.
Our democratic system assumes that the collective wisdom of an informed citizenry is the best assurance that our many challenges won’t take us down. But, if we as a people steadfastly maintain a concept of what it means to be patriotic that is essentially a superficial cop out, our great experiment and dream are doomed. Bumper sticker patriotism doesn’t cut it. Only we have the power to recognize our inherent responsibilities to perform the preventive maintenance our national vehicle requires.
Gary F. Kent
July 3, 2008