I recently had a discussion with a friend about what patriotism would mean for someone like me, particularly after noting my disgust with Romney’s messianic claim that “this nation is the hope of the Earth.” As anyone who follows me on Facebook or knows me personally will know, I frequently pass along and comment on information very critical of the United States government, particularly with regards to foreign relations, civil liberties, and economics.

The question this friend raised was, even if I agree with you, where if anywhere then is there a place for patriotism?

My initial responses were a little scattered. It’s something I’ve thought about quite a bit, but never known quite how to come to terms with. At first I cataloged a list of America’s sins that often go unnamed and unaccounted for, as evidence that perhaps patriotism is misplaced. But then when lightly rebuffed by my friend I realized that that didn’t really answer the question.

So I talked some about how patriotism has shifted in the course of history especially with the advent of modernism from love of a culture and a people to loyalty to a system of power and coercion.

I also talked about how love of a smaller body of people that one truly felt connected to, like a city seemed to come more naturally to me, and how we don’t owe unconditional love to a nation-state as such (or if we do only inasmuch as we want to see them restored, using the examples of Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn).

But I wasn’t really satisfied with my answer, and as I began to talk about the conversation with my wife I realized why.

I think that my frequent and vociferous criticisms of the U.S. government are in fact themselves born out of patriotism. Patriotism has everything to do with love of neighbor, and love of those who you share the camaraderie of citizenship with. To be a patriotic American is to love and have concern for your fellow Americans. That is precisely the reason that I am so vocal about the actions of the United States government.

I believe that our Constitution, as the enshrinement of the rule of law for the nation matters; not that it is perfect or sacred, but it is what we have and it is the final rule of law for this nation. And so when I see it trampled, my concern for my fellow man is piqued. When I see the United States government engaged in undeclared and illegal wars, when I see them invading countries on false pretenses, causing the deaths of half a million children in Iraq via sanctions, destroying the economy and thus starving millions of Iranians, killing innocent civilians, men, women and children in Pakistan, Yemen, and elsewhere via drone bombs operated by men with joysticks in California or Missouri, my love of country and countrymen compels me to cry out against such injustice and brutality so that others will not willingly soak their hands in the blood of a corrupt government. I love my country enough to recoil at the thought of her engaging in such evil.

It is because I love my country and my countrymen that I speak out against their disenfranchisement and loss of civil liberties through things like the TSA, the Patriot Act, the National Defense Authorization Act, and the President’s kill list which allows for the assassination of American citizens without trial or due process.

It is because I do love my country and thus my neighbors, whether across the street, across the state, or across the nation that I speak out against police brutality, the so-called war on drugs, the use of para-military and SWAT teams on non-violent civilians, the disarmament of the citizenry, warrantless wiretaps, the domestic use of drones and cameras, etc.

I could go on and on, but that would be to belabor the point, which is that it is precisely my love of country, defined as the people that make up this nation, that impels me to care about the destruction of liberty, the betrayal of the rule of law, the trampling of the Constitution and the principles (however imperfect) upon which the founders of our country intended to establish this nation.

To be clear, I am not some sort of golden-age perfectionist. I am not calling for the repristination of a formerly ideal America. I understand that this country was founded with institutional sin embedded in the form of legal chattel slavery among other things.

My argument, like that of the civil rights leaders is that one can be a patriot while decrying in the starkest terms the actions of one’s government. One can be a patriot while being ashamed of the evil one’s government perpetrates. Patriotism is defined as the love of one’s country. I love the United States. In fact I love it enough to be honest, and to say that we are sinking into a moral quagmire. I love it enough to decry corruption, collusion and evil on both sides of the dominant political aisle. I love it enough to rail against injustice and evil for the sake of my fellow countrymen who consciously or unconsciously suffer from the debasement of their culture, government and civilization. I do not apologize for speaking the most harsh and direct truths about our moral failures, our injustices, our evils... but that does not mean I do not love the country. Jeremiah loved the Israel he lambasted. I love my country and my countrymen, and I hope that by being willing to speak prophetically to her I am showing the kind of tough love that is necessary amidst such moral turpitude.

Finally, above all I love Christ and his Church which knows no borders, which means that my patriotism can never sink into mere nationalism. I will always love the Church first, and subjugate my love of country to my love of Christ and His Church. So, as I said in my comments in the initial Facebook thread that prompted this post, there may be a time to not love one’s country if it comes to a choice between love of country and love of God. Similarly there may be times to take sides with other nations if one’s country is engaged in unjust actions against them. But that is another subject, and would require a great deal more unpacking.

For now I will say, that perhaps the proposed distinction between critique of government and patriotism is simply a false distinction. I critique the government of the country I love, for the sake of the people of that country.

Here are my initial answers to the question from the Facebook discussion which I was ultimately unsatisfied with but which may fill in some gaps for any who would like context:

Justin Donathan Yeah, I think I just find it hard to feel a lot of patriotism at this moment in history when so much evil is being perpetuated by our government and it is largely going unacknowledged and uncriticized by both major parties, the media, the Church, seemingly everyone. I find our current foreign policy reprehensible and I fully expect that we as a society are storing up God's wrath for our combination of hubris and brutality. God hates bullies, and I see no other way to view much of what we are doing with drones in Pakistan, Yemen and who knows where else, or the birth defects of thousands of Iraqi children due to the types of munitions we used when we invaded their country, etc. And this isn't new. Most people (myself included although I've tried to learn as much as I can) don't even know about things like the carpet bombing and invasion of Panama's slums in the late 80's, and the mass graves they are still uncovering there, or the secret wars and CIA actions in Laos and Cambodia where thousands still die every year from unexploded munitions, or the horrific things we've done all over South America simultaneously funding and fighting various narco-cartels and terrorist groups, and that's not to even mention us being the only country to drop nuclear bombs, and on civilian populations at that, and being one of a limited few that has firebombed cities full of civilians to the tune of hundreds of thousands of deaths of men, women and children.

When this is combined with our major candidates bragging about destroying the economies of other nations through the most crippling sanctions ever imposed, and competing over who can be more vociferous in their promise of a trade war with China and promises that neither of them is so radical as to really try to stop the killing of our unborn here in America to the tune of over 3,000 a day... it's just all a little too much.

I love my country in the sense that it's mine as X says, and I love it in the sense that I pray for it and its leaders, and I love it in the sense that, bracketing out the government as an abstraction, I love the people of this country, but I'm not sure about calling us a force for good. I think we often think that because we are taught a version of history, or at least historical events, that wouldn't be recognized by many in other parts of the world. I'm also not sure that having the most powerful military in the history of the world is a blessing. I think that in many ways it has proven to be a liability and a temptation, although of course there are historical instances where it has proven very valuable in curtailing evil to some degree.

So, to answer your question there is nothing that either candidate could have said instead of the comment about us being the hope of the Earth that would have been in any way politically acceptable, because what I think ought to be said is a word of chastisement, and a sober call for repentance and a recognition that we are in a moral quagmire that is going to require much diligence, honesty and humility to get out of. But politicians don't say things like that, except maybe Ron Paul, which is why I like him so much. The Church used to, but it seems that we see less of it today than in the past.

Justin Donathan Put another way, the last few years of reading about American history and politics from various sources and perspectives has been a little like finding out that your father was a murderer and you had no idea. Do you still love your family, yes, but it changes things.

Justin Donathan Sorry, I guess I didn't answer your question well.

I think maybe a part of it could be loving the culture and the people without necessarily loving the government and the actions of government. That's thorny for many reasons in the U.S. because we have an ostensibly representative democracy making it hard to separate government from people (although I think it is pretty clear that that system is rather far from working as purported given the prevalence of special interest groups/lobbyists/etc.), and we have an incredibly diverse culture made up of a huge number of subcultures from geographic to ethnic to socioeconomic, etc. So it's hard to identify with "American culture" broadly, but I don't think it's impossible. I think that is the sense in which patriotism can be appropriate. But it's also important I think to consider the question historically, and ask whether the institution of the modern nation state is the proper object of such feelings. In some sense the nation-state as a totalizing institution is an invention of modernism that replaces the cultural glue that identifies a people with a power structure based on coercion and force as the definer of people groups. So now to be patriotic isn't to love Americans so much as it is to love America as a system of governance... or at least that's often how it's presented with symbols of patriotism like flyovers by fighter jets and the continual demand for a pledge of allegiance to the flag of the civil government. 

One thing I have noticed is that I find it much easier or more natural to have a feeling like patriotism toward my city than toward my country. It is less abstract and much more clear that in doing so I am talking about love for a particular people and particular cultural institutions and shared values and experiences, than is the case with regard to the country as a whole.

Finally, I don't think that we owe our country unqualified love. There are times and places where it is one's duty not to love country, if the country is evil (presuming we're thinking of the country as is typically meant in modern discussions of patriotism, with reference particularly to the civil governance aspect, rather than as a collection of individuals or cultural institutions as I mentioned above). I'm assuming that Dietrich Bonhoeffer ceased to feel patriotism for Germany, or at least felt it in a longing sense, as in, loving what Germany had once been and loving that ideal enough to wish for its return. I would guess Solzhenitsyn felt the same. 

I don't remember much about the details, but C.S. Lewis has a discussion of patriotism in "The Four Loves" that I remember at the time I read it (a few years ago) I found pretty helpful.

Sorry, this is somewhat stream of consciousness. I find it a hard question to get my mind around too.
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