What is Patriotism? A GWU Professor’s Independence Day Perspective

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By: Dr. Scott Shauf, Associate Professor, GWU Department of Religious Studies and Philosophy

The celebration of Independence Day brings with it all sorts of patriotic celebrations—singing, parades, ceremonies, and fireworks! But what is patriotism? How should we really think about our role as citizens of America? It is a question worth considering.

Patriotism at its best, I suggest, combines the classic virtues of thankfulness and love. Thankfulness is increasingly becoming a lost virtue today. We live in an age inclined to see everything good as a right to be demanded rather than as a gift to be received with gratitude. If we are entitled to all good things in life, how can we be thankful for them? Older Americans often perceive a decline in patriotism among young people today, and to the extent that this perception is correct, I believe it is due largely to this rise of a sense of entitlement and the loss of a sense of thankfulness that accompanies it. The ancient Romans statesman Cicero said, “Gratitude is not only the greatest of virtues but also the parent of all the others.” I believe that a lack of gratitude is behind many of the moral problems in American culture today.

Americans, after all, have many things to be thankful for as a nation. Despite our recent economic struggles, the level of our lifestyle is incredibly high compared to the rest of the world and compared to previous generations in our own country. We also still enjoy basic freedoms—such as those First Amendment freedoms of speech, religion, assembly, and the press—that billions throughout the world still lack. On Independence Day we especially—and rightfully—tend to remember those in the military, past and present, who have put their lives on the line for us. In recent years, we have also come to honor regularly those who work to protect us in our communities—as well we should!

I doubt there is anyone who does not recognize love as of central importance in human relationships. The question is, whom do we love? And how do we love? In the Old Testament, the ancient Israelites were given the commandment to love one’s neighbor (Leviticus 19:18), and Jesus elevated this to the second most important commandment, behind only loving God (Mark 12:31). The valuing of love for one’s neighbor is of crucial importance in building and holding together societies, because while we naturally tend to love family members, loving one’s neighbor often involves a lot of work! But without doing so, we can never live together peacefully. Patriotism, at its best, is a community-building love for others, an extension of the love that builds local communities and enables us to live together in harmony as a nation.

But here is where we must be careful. There is no reason for love to stop at national borders. Jesus told the parable of the Good Samaritan precisely to get us to expand our sense of who our neighbors are. Just as loving members of our family should not stop us from loving members of other families, so should love for our nation not stop us from loving people in other nations. When it does, we sink into a bad sort of patriotism—perhaps we should call it nationalism. The Irish playwright George Bernard Shaw mockingly described this sort of patriotism as “your conviction that this country is superior to all others because you were born in it.” Americans should never think that we are better than others or deserve more than others simply because we were born here. It may well be that we are blessed as a nation more than many other nations—but this should lead us to further gratitude and love, a desire to share with and give to others, not to pride and arrogance.

There are other ways that patriotism can become bad, too. Patriotism should never mean blind obedience to our government. Good patriots obey their nation’s laws out of love for their neighbors (and, hopefully, for God), but if laws or government actions violate more fundamental principles of goodness and justice, then love calls us to resist. G.K. Chesterton once said, “‘My country, right or wrong,’ is a thing that no patriot would think of saying except in a desperate case. It is like saying, ‘My mother, drunk or sober.’” If your mother is drunk, you work to get her sober—and if your country is committing wrong, you work to make it right! Justifying evil in the name of serving one’s country is not truly patriotic at all. If America is more blessed as a nation than other nations, then we must hold ourselves to higher moral standards than others, not lower ones. Thankfully, in America we have a long history of resisting unjust laws and reforming our society to become more just.

This Independence Day, let us celebrate as true patriots, with thankfulness and love.

Dr. Scott Shauf is an associate professor of religious studies at Gardner-Webb University.