As we celebrate the anniversary of our country’s founding, singing songs of our love for America, it is appropriate to consider whether our country really is worth loving and, if she is, what it means to love her. This question is more important now than ever before: it is perhaps the dominant dividing line in America today.
Take the recent strife over the national anthem. While some Americans use the anthem as an occasion for protest, other Americans see a failure to stand during its performance as a betrayal of the land they love. This is not merely a dispute over etiquette. It is a deep disagreement over that most fundamental of political questions: whether—and how—Americans ought to love their country. Many of the other conflicts currently roiling America’s public life—conflicts over symbols of America’s past, over immigration and refugees—emerge from disputes over this same question.
This essay offers a possible answer. It begins with an explanation of how and why we can love America well, in a way that is not only defensible but noble, and it concludes by considering how this love should affect our politics.
Patriotic love properly begins with affection: the appreciation, the comprehension and esteem, of that which is good in its object. True affection appreciates only what is worthy of esteem. To esteem the vices in our country is not to love her well; indeed, it is not to love her at all.
The affection we have for America ought to be prompted by the good things in her: the beauty of her rolling hills and soaring mountains, the nobility in her history, the justice in her laws and courts, the art and ideas her people have bequeathed to the world. And the highest sort of affection appreciates its object’s highest virtues. Americans ought to follow Pericles in appreciating that “[o]ur government does not copy our neighbors, but is an example to them.” Athens, like America, had its share of Olympic medals; but better to exult in the constitution of our republic than in the constitution of our athletes.
One might object here that this affection is too thin to be called patriotism. Affection cannot explain the unique love that Americans feel for America. After all, one need not reside within our country’s borders to savor Steinbeck’s stories or marvel at Madison’s handiwork.
The answer is that, as St. Augustine pointed out long ago, “nothing can be loved unless it be known.” No one can love America like an American because no one knows her like an American.
But to say that knowledge is essential to love does not imply that patriotism is the unique province of intellectuals. The knowledge that leads to love of country is not necessarily or even frequently propositional. Rather, it is the firsthand experience of a place that gradually helps us see what is beautiful about it. Nor does this imply that only those born in America can genuinely love her. An immigrant who has suffered under the oppression of authoritarianism is in some ways especially capable of knowing the value of the freedom Americans enjoy.
A perusal of the The Federalist might give an interested Frenchman an understanding of our governmental institutions. But true affection for our Constitution can come only from living under the government it structures, participating in the politics it makes possible, and exercising the freedoms it secures. In a word, we love our country because she is, in some important sense, ours.
Protecting and Promoting America’s Goodness
But our love for America should not be limited to this. Patriotic affection ought to elicit a further desire to protect and promote America’s goodness. Americans today are the beneficiaries of those who pledged their lives and sacred honor to form this country, those who spent their lives in the struggle to keep it, and those who have worked tirelessly to shape it into a more perfect union. We have many blessings to be grateful for, and the appropriate product of our gratitude is a desire to promote these blessings.
This desire to protect and promote our country’s goodness is properly called patriotism, but it is patriotism of a particular kind. When our country struggles or our government errs, patriotism arouses us to safeguard the things we love. Our love for our country is originally founded on all the countless lovely things about her. But our love for America does not rest on its remaining lovely. If it did, it would be no love at all. Such a false patriotism is, as C.S. Lewis once put it, “like loving your children only if they’re good, your wife only while she keeps her looks, your husband only so long as he is famous and successful.”
Because true patriotism appreciates America’s charms but refuses to esteem her faults, it does not cause us to blindly endorse everything our country is and has been. It will not even permit us to be unmoved by our country’s sins. We promote our country’s goodness both by celebrating its virtues and by identifying—and remedying—its vices. This patriotism will not allow us to mark as noble what is ignoble. It compels us to cherish those goods that ought to be cherished and to remedy those evils that ought to be remedied.
This patriotism thus aims to protect and promote America’s goodness, not her government. It entails no particular commitment to, or satisfaction with, the ruling authority of the state. On the contrary, it will sometimes require criticizing our government when it fails to promote and protect what is good about America. We ought to have affection for the justice and peace that our government secures, and our love for our country ought to compel us to promote these blessings—including by holding our government to account. An unpatriotic heart is thus characterized not by agitation, but by apathy.
Objections against Patriotism
Patriotism is frequently criticized as an unjustifiable preference for people who happen to reside within the same arbitrary lines on a map. Patriotism conceives of one’s country as a morally relevant object, as something to which we are loyal and of which we take special consideration. Yet morality is typically—and rightly—understood to be universal, with individual human beings the locus of moral concern. A critic might be left wondering how any patriotism can justify treating a subset of human beings as deserving of special solicitude. There are at least three reasons why the patriotism described here is in fact justifiable.
First, this patriotism describes an inclination of the heart. The critic might say that we ought to replace our desire to protect and promote our country’s goodness with a desire to protect and promote the world’s goodness. But when it comes to the inclinations of our hearts, cosmopolitan love is outside the reach of mere mortals; our hearts would break were we to experience the world’s tragedies as if each had happened to our own mother. One can recognize universal love as the ideal while still praising people’s progress toward that ideal. Man’s natural inclination is to selfishness, not charity, and patriotism helps move him closer to the charity he ought to have. To return to Lewis: “those who do not love the fellow-villagers or fellow-townsmen whom they have seen are not likely to have got very far towards loving ‘Man’ whom they have not.”
Second, this patriotism is constituted by a desire for our country’s good—not just her material prosperity, but her moral good as well. This patriotism therefore cannot justify ignoring the moral significance of non-Americans. All agree, for example, that we ought to love our family, and most even agree that this love rightfully privileges our family’s interests over others. But a familial love that justifies injustice to others is, in truth, an idolatrous imitator of love. Indeed, a proper patriotism, rather than promoting injustice, helps prevent it. As G.K. Chesterton argued, what is “really need[ed] for the frustration and overthrow of a deaf and raucous Jingoism is a renascence of the love of the native land.”
Third, those inclined to take moral instruction from the Christian Bible have good reasons to affirm the nobility of loving one’s country as one’s country. Christ wept for Jerusalem. Paul was ready to sacrifice himself for his people. And there must be something to the story of Peter’s sermon at Pentecost: the miracle was not that those assembled heard the sermon in Peter’s language, but that they understood it in their own. The nations’ differences were not eliminated, but affirmed.
Patriotism understood in this way—as the desire to protect and promote our country’s goodness—is not only justifiable. It is good. It stirs us to celebrate our country’s loveliness and inspires us to rectify her ugliness.
How Patriotism Affects Politics
On its surface, the patriotism outlined above shares some resemblance to the “new nationalism” some conservatives have celebrated in the current presidential administration. Matthew Continetti, for example, explains that the new nationalism binds Americans together “by our love of the land, its natural beauty, its inhabitants, its history, by what our people have achieved, what they have lost, what they have endured.” Likewise, Rich Lowry and Ramesh Ponnuru have endorsed a nationalism that “includes loyalty to one’s country: a sense of belonging, allegiance, and gratitude to it . . . [that] attaches to the country’s people and culture, not just to its political institutions and laws.”
Continetti, Lowry, and Ponnuru are eager to craft policy recommendations from this new nationalism. But while the policies these writers recommend may or may not be prudent, it is difficult to see how they follow from an appreciation for, say, the beauty of the Blue Ridge Mountains or the courage of Dr. King’s convictions. The patriotism described in this essay certainly does not entail them. Desiring to protect and promote the goodness in America will lead to us to care deeply about what our government does, yes; but arriving at particular policy prescriptions requires identifying not only what is good about America but also which policies will protect and promote this goodness.
Take, as examples, limiting immigration and promoting the exclusive use of the English language, two of the policies suggested both by Continetti and by Lowry and Ponurru. These policies follow from our patriotic sentiments only if they further, rather than hinder, what is good about America. But how to decide? The magnificent dome of St. Josaphat’s Basilica in Milwaukee, Wisconsin is ringed with verses written in the Polish spoken by the church’s original parishioners. Today, Spanish-language flyers cover its interior. Is this an example of something about America that needs correction—say, the unfortunate reality that English is not as universally spoken as some Americans might like—or is it an example of what is good about America—say, America’s tradition of welcoming immigrants?
History alone, while important, cannot give us the answer. As Ross Douthat has incisively observed, “the real American past was particularist as well as universalist.” That is, America is and has been a country of immigrants from all across the world, and it is and has been a country of Protestant, Lockean Englishmen. Each American, drawing on his own moral principles and aesthetic predilections, must decide which elements in America’s topography and culture and history are worthy of his affection—which elements are worth protecting and promoting.
This debate will always be difficult. But it is essential that we see that those who disagree with us on this question are no less patriotic than we are.
The bad news is that we will never reach consensus on exactly what is worth loving in our country. The good news is that many of the things Americans love about America are not mutually exclusive. Most of the time, our countrymen are right to love these things, for they are truly good things. Loving America well requires the capacity to relish the countless visions of her goodness held by Americans across our country.
Most of all, loving America well means taking her seriously—working to preserve what is lovely about her and to fix what is not. No one can love America like an American, and that is precisely why we are called to do it.