by Joe Carter
Patriots’ Day is an annual observance of the anniversary of when the American colonies first took up arms against the British Crown on April 19, 1775. Patriots’ Day has become a forgotten holiday, due in part to the fact we Americans have a peculiar relationship to the term “patriot.”
To question someone’s patriotism is considered an insult, while to praise their patriotism is (usually) a compliment. Yet strangely, the only people who refer to themselves, completely without irony or qualification, as patriots are old veterans, old conservatives, and certain pro athletes in New England.
Of course, people who do not fit into those three categories sometimes self-identify with that label. But when they do it’s almost always accompanied by an asterisk, denoting—whether expressed or implied—that the use of the word comes with a qualifier:
* Sure, I love my country but I that doesn’t mean I support ________. (the President, Congress, the government, the latest military action, etc.)
* I am a patriotic, but that doesn’t mean I think America is better than other countries.
* Of course I’m a patriotic as they come—though I would never, ever serve in—nor let my child enlist in—the U.S. military.
* I’m a patriot but I’m nothing like those Bible-thumping, flag-fetishizing, NASCAR-loving, types of patriots.
However, some people are more straightforward about their mixed feelings. A Japanese reporter once inquired of the leftist filmmaker Michael Moore, “You do not seem to like the U.S., do you?” Moore’s response sums up the sentiment behind the patriot’s asterisk: “I like America to some extent.”
Unfortunately, the asterisk isn’t completely without warrant since the co-opting of the term by nativists, xenophobes, and domestic terrorists has caused some Americans to distance themselves from the label.
It is also true the term patriot has to compete with other terms we might rightfully believe take precedence. American Christians, for example, not only owe allegiance to our country but also, and more importantly, to the Kingdom of God. Even if we consider ourselves loyal citizens of the U.S. we also embrace a form of universal cosmopolitanism in cleaving to the invisible, catholic Church.
Whatever unique and individual allegiances we might have, we corporately share a divided loyalty between America as our birthplace (or adopted home) and America as an ideal, a set of principles embodied in such documents as the U.S. Constitution and the Declaration of Independence. While our bifurcated loyalty can make patriotic sentiments complex and dissonant, it can also prevent a love of America from devolving into blind nationalism.
This tension sets America—and our identity as a nation—apart in a peculiar way. As historian Walter Berns notes,
The late Martin Diamond had this in mind when, in an American government textbook, he points out that the terms “Americanism,” “Americanization,” and “un-American” have no counterparts in any other country or language. This is not by chance, or a matter of phonetics—Swissism? Englishization?—or mere habit. (What would a Frenchman have to do or believe in order to justify being labeled un-French?) The fact is, and it was first noted by the Englishman, G.K. Chesterton, the term “Americanism” reflects a unique phenomenon; as Diamond puts it, “It expresses the conviction that American life is uniquely founded on a set of political principles.”
Most Americans have so internalized this concept of America as both a geographic place and an abstract ideal that we sometimes forget how radical it must appear to the rest of the world.
Consider, for example, the tiny minority of Mexicans and Mexican-Americans who support reconquista, the “reconquering” and return of California, New Mexico, and other parts of the United States to Mexico. If their dream were realized it would simply make Mexico a much larger but still underdeveloped nation. You can move the border northward but without the culture, ideals, laws, and principles of America, San Diego is just another Tijuana.
The beauty and genius of our principles is that there is nothing that makes them exclusively American. They include ideals—such as universal religious liberty—that are not only available to all people but also, as American political philosophers since Thomas Jefferson have contentiously argued, likely to eventually be adopted by the majority of nations on Earth.
In the truest and best sense, to be a American patriot then is to align oneself with all generations of Americans—past, present, and future—who claim that all men are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights. (When we truly believe and peacefully promote this claim without regard to race or creed, we become more genuinely and consistently patriotic than even our Founding Fathers.)
Abraham Lincoln gave expression to what should be an applicable description of all American patriots in his eulogy for the Kentucky politician Henry Clay:
He loved his country partly because it was his own country, but mostly because it was a free country; and he burned with a zeal for its advancement, prosperity and glory, because he saw in such, the advancement, prosperity and glory, of human liberty, human right and human nature. He desired the prosperity of his countrymen partly because they were his countrymen, but chiefly to show to the world that freemen could be prosperous.
Berns says that for Clay (and Lincoln), “country and principle were one and the same.” Perhaps in Clay we can find a useful model for ourselves; a way to be a patriot without the need for either an asterisk or apology.
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Joe Carter is a Senior Editor at the Acton Institute. Joe also serves as an editor at the The Gospel Coalition, a communications specialist for the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention, and as an adjunct professor of journalism at Patrick Henry College. He is the editor of the NIV Lifehacks Bible and co-author of How to Argue like Jesus: Learning Persuasion from History’s Greatest Communicator (Crossway).