I’ve always loved Independence Day, for a lot of reasons but chiefly for the nostalgic memories it evokes of childhood (sparklers, barbecues, blockbuster movies, swimming pools, popsicles) and the celebratory community it cultivates among Americans. Divided though we may be along red and blue state lines, most are joined in at least the basic sentiment of thankfulness on this day: for freedom, for apple pie, for a day off work. If not everyone experiences this day as an expression of patriotism, they at least enjoy it for the hot dogs and corn on the cob.

American Patriotism of the sort often exhibited on July Fourth–and also before sports events, at some elementary schools before the day begins, and in most country music–has for some people become rather gauche and vulgar. To these skeptics, patriotism is brash and unbecoming, something associated with “freedom fries,” yellow ribbon militarism, Toby Keith, guns and George W. Bush. Patriotism is simply an emotionally manipulative arm of nationalism, they suppose; a dangerous ideology that can fuel reckless foreign policy and unseemly cultural arrogance.

While some of those criticisms are valid (to be sure, patriotism has at times throughout history been used to galvanize nations around dastardly plans and policies), I think it’s a mistake to assume that a) patriotism is the same thing as nationalism, and b) patriotism is a manufactured extension of hegemonic ideology.

'1957... After the Prom - by Norman Rockwell' photo (c) 2009, James Vaughan - license: http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0/Patriotism is more existential than ideological, I think. It’s less about propagandistic justification for “exceptionalism-oriented” foreign policy (though it can be this) than it is a natural feeling of admiration and nostalgia for the place we call home.

It’s the thankfulness we feel for the particular nuances of the world that reared us: the culture (in America: jazz, baseball, the national parks, pretty much everything Ken Burns has documented in his films), the history (1776, Abraham Lincoln, Buzz Aldrin and so on), the landscape (for me: the windswept prairies and thunderstorms of Middle America), and the people (our parents, our teachers, the kids we played with in the street).

Patriotism is a good thing. It’s the natural emotional connection we have with place. We’re wired to ache for this notion of “home.” It’s what the Israelites longed for in the Sinai. It’s what the Hobbits longed for (the Shire) during their Middle Earth adventures. It’s what constitutes part of C.S. Lewis’s Sehnsucht: a nostalgic longing for the “Green Hills” of his Belfast childhood, “the low line of the Castlereagh Hills which we saw from the nursery windows.”

Yes, patriotism is provincial and “self-focused.” Necessarily so. Everyone has a different place they call home, a different assemblage of culture they treasure. The diversity of patriotisms (American patriotism vs. Swedish patriotism, for example) does not need to be thought of in terms of competing patriotisms. Rather, it should serve as an affirmation of the richness and complexity of culture and a celebration of the diversity of God’s created world. It’s natural to feel that “my country is better than yours!” and it doesn’t have to be a bad thing. If no one felt this pride, the Olympics would be a snooze and Disney World’s EPCOT Center would be far less interesting. When I travel to a foreign country I want the people I meet there to take pride in their country and culture. If I went to Switzerland and the Swiss citizens I met insisted that their chocolates, mountains and watches “were nothing special,” I’d be hugely disappointed.

Lewis wrote in The Four Loves that a healthy patriotism is based on a love of home and “is not in the least aggressive.”

It asks only to be let alone. It becomes militant only to protect what it loves. In any mind that has a pennyworth of imagination it produces a good attitude towards foreigners. How can I love my home without coming to realise that other men, no less rightly, love theirs? Once you have realised that Frenchmen like cafe’ complet just as we like bacon and eggs–why good luck to them and let them have it. The last thing we want is to make everywhere else just like our own home. It would not be home unless it were different.

And so this Independence Day, I’m not going to feel bad about my pride in America. I’m not going to shrink from patriotism, as if it’s anything other than a natural and good thing to feel. I will be careful not to confuse it with nationalism, however, and will not forget the fact that as Christians, “our first love must be the kingdom of God, over and above any love of country, no matter how pure and honorable that love might be.”

Ultimately my fondness for “home” and all of its nostalgic resonances–Gettysburg, Old Faithful, college football tailgating, Norman Rockwell, Kansas City barbecue, cherry cobbler–should point me heavenward, stirring my heart but not satisfying it, stoking the fires of Sehnsucht just as the Irish green hills did for Lewis.

Posted by Brett McCracken

Brett McCracken is a Los Angeles-based journalist. He is the author of Hipster Christianity (2010) and Gray Matters (2013), and has written for the Wall Street Journal, the Washington Post, CNN.com, the Princeton Theological Review, Mediascape, Books & Culture, Christianity Today, Relevant, IMAGE Journal, Q Ideas, and Conversantlife.com. A graduate of Wheaton College and UCLA, Brett currently works as managing editor for Biola Magazine and teaches at Biola University. Follow him on Twitter @brettmccracken.

  • Nicholas Higgins

    Fantastic article. Thank you for your insight!

  • I like that you are trying to articulate why patriotism might be a milder, more innocent, less militant form of nationalism–that resonates with me to a degree but I think you shouldn’t just give Christians permission to enjoy a little mild, care-free patriotism. As Christians we need to think harder about those things we feel nostalgic or patriotic about in the USA. It is certainly fine to remember fondly and celebrate good things (that is things we can call “good” with a Christian worldview or imagination) but we should also shudder about evil and tragic things in our past. Some things on the celebrate list that you also allude to are: joy (swimming pools), beauty (fireworks, National Parks, prairies and thunderstorms of Middle America), music (jazz), Lincoln’s courage, and love and friendship (our parents, our teachers, the kids we played with in the street)–but I am not sure this is “patriotism” or traditional 4th of July themes. Would not a Christian from some other country also rejoice in these things in the US but without the label “patriotism?” This list is closer to thoughtful “Christian gratitude.” Christians can enjoy some of the 4th of the July festivities but discriminatingly: saying to ourselves and our kids–“That is really something to be proud of: God’s kingdom has come in a small way through this event or act in USA history” and on the other hand, “That, as Christians, we really can’t celebrate that part of our past but must rather mourn” and always “May his kingdom come on earth as it is in heaven.” We as Christians are not to understand ourselves primarily as “American citizens.” As Christians, our peculiar comments and different practices done winsomely, courageously, and thoughtfully will sometimes persuade outsiders of our “way” rather than just annoy and repel them with our lack of patriotic fervor.

  • Keith Miller

    Andy,

    What you are describing as permissible patriotic expression is really no patriotism at all.

    Allow me to excerpt from Chesterton’s critique of Kipling in his volume Heretics:

    Being devoted to this multitudinous vision of duty, Mr. Kipling is naturally a cosmopolitan. He happens to find his examples in the British Empire, but almost any other empire would do as well, or, indeed, any other highly civilized country. That which he admires in the British army he would find even more apparent in the German army; that which he desires in the British police he would find flourishing, in the French police. The ideal of discipline is not the whole of life, but it is spread over the whole of the world. And the worship of it tends to confirm in Mr. Kipling a certain note of worldly wisdom, of the experience of the wanderer, which is one of the genuine charms of his best work.

    The great gap in his mind is what may be roughly called the lack of patriotism–that is to say, he lacks altogether the faculty of attaching himself to any cause or community finally and tragically; for all finality must be tragic. He admires England, but he does not love her; for we admire things with reasons, but love them without reasons. He admires England because she is strong, not because she is English.

    You are saying that a Christian’s Fourth of July sentiments should consist solely of well-grounded admiration rather than irrevocable love, for the Christian must never be “primarily” identified as an American citizen.

    But even though I agree with you that my ultimate identity is as a regenerate saint and a citizen of Heaven, I have other identities. I am my wife’s husband and my children’s father. My love is irrevocably committed to them. They may sin grievously and I may feel much pain, but they will still be mine.

    America is a parallel–though less immediate–community, to which I am bound “finally and tragically.” Thus my warm and fuzzy Independence Day celebrations are not occasions for mere admiration, but for patriotic love.

    • A similar quote to that of Chesterton: “It was obvious that only things that mattered to her were her children and her house–not her neighbors, not the poor, not her country, not her parents, not even her own husband.” (Jonathan Franzen, Freedom, 7-8).

      There is a classist “above all that” disdain for patriotism that disdains all that is earthy and basic because it is not sophisticated and urbane. This haughtiness is unmoored from any community–grounded in only “liberal” values. But if we are rooted in a “tradition” (and I am claiming the church as that traditioned community to use MacIntyre’s Aristotelian framework), then we can be discriminating from that perspective. I would bet that Chesterton would be on the whole on my side of this argument against supposedly benign patriotism.

      • Keith Miller

        You are right, Chesterton would surely have no quibble with your discriminating between the good and the bad things done by your country.

        But I believe he would also say that you should love America “without reason” in such a way that you could be caused pain when she does something foolish or evil. That element of tragedy is perhaps the key to Chesterton’s idea of patriotism and part of why he believed it to be a virtue.

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  • Jon Askonas

    Great little post; for a more philosophical defense of patriotism along similar lines (how is not ideological but still justifies such extreme sacrifices?), I recommend the short but excellent article “Is Patriotism a Virtue?” by the eminent virtue ethicist Alasdair Macintyre.

    • Jon, I know I’ve read that in the past and you’re right: it’s great. Do you know if it’s available online anywhere?

      Matt

  • dean

    “By faith Abraham, when called to go to a place he would later receive as his inheritance, obeyed and went, even though he did not know where he was going.By faith he made his home in the promised land like a stranger in a foreign country; he lived in tents, as did Isaac and Jacob, who were heirs with him of the same promise.For he was looking forward to the city with foundations, whose architect and builder is God.”

    There are some great things to experience whichever nation we live…terrible also. There is also greater things to look forward too…

  • Paul Seger

    What scripture would you use to argue patriotism?

    • jason taylor

      What scripture would you use to argue the phrase “what scripture would you use to argue…?”

      • Nicholas Higgins

        On that note, what scripture would he use to argue using a computer to argue the phrase “what scripture would you use to argue…?”

      • Joel

        Hmm…how about 2 Timothy 2:15, for starters. You have to understand this from the perspective of one who has been berated for being Biblical. I don’t like to sing “My Country, Tis of Thee” in church during a worship service (I am a worship leader), not because I dislike the song, but because I don’t believe it leads me to God. I do believe that patriotism is, in itself, a good thing. But I don’t believe that it is a Biblical concept. You may feel the same, but it’s hard to deny the feelings of millions of conservatives–particularly veterans–that purport a Biblicality that simply doesn’t exist. So, allow me to rephrase the question as one not opening itself to a circular dismissal: “Are there scriptures that you believe support patriotism as an important aspect of a Christ-follower’s life?”

    • Keith Miller

      Mr. Seger, I just ran across the following litany from Founding Father Benjamin Rush which could certainly form the beginning of an answer to your question.

      Patriotism is as much a virtue as justice, and is as necessary for the support of societies as natural affection is for the support of families. The Amor Patriae is both a moral and a religious duty. It comprehends not only the love of our neighbors but of millions of our fellow creatures, not only of the present but of future generations. This virtue we find constitutes a part of the first characters in history. The holy men of old, in proportion as they possessed a religious were endowed with a public spirit. What did no Moses forsake and suffer for his countrymen! What shining examples of Patriotism do we behold in Joshua, Samuel, Maccabeus, and all the illustrious princes, captains, and prophets amongst the Jews! St. Paul almost wishes himself accursed for his countrymen and kinsmen after the flesh. Even our Savior himself gives a sanction to this virtue. He confined his miracles and gospel at first to his own country.

  • Joel

    Indeed, but those were the chosen people, spoken to and given a covenant by God. It seems apples to oranges.

    There is nothing wrong with patriotism, but neither is it commanded in scripture. It certainly is not a critical component of worship.

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