Patriotism, Tempered and Pure

By Dr. Jeff Mirus (bio - articles - email) | Jul 03, 2013

July fourth is a national holiday in the United States, the celebration of the country’s independence from England. Our independence and subsequent expansion from coast to coast is, I suppose, a dubious moral achievement, but at least it teaches us about the contingency and provisionality of sovereignty. The American Civil War, fought almost a century later, offers similar lessons. Unfortunately, there are many who somehow regard the current shape of the American experiment, borrowing St. Anselm’s proof of the existence of God, as “that than which nothing greater can be conceived”, nor more necessary. Still, there is legitimate substance in the love of one’s country, whatever its current size or shape, and however it came about.

That substance can be difficult to explain. Patriotism in a proper moral sense has nothing to do with State power and everything to do with the inescapable “thisness” of every human life. The human person flourishes in a particular time, place and culture which both shape him and are shaped by him. This specific time becomes “my” time of passage through the universe, with all the questions and concerns proper to that moment; this place becomes the soil which nourishes my own roots, the setting for my own life’s drama; this culture will both shape and stimulate the commitments I will make, and the achievements for which I strive.

Above all, one’s country represents all that is familiar, and all of our connections to others who enjoy that same familiarity. It is certainly possible to have a deep attachment to more local settings—a home, a town, a region—but in most times and places “the nation”, that is the people of which I am a part and with whom I share so many common bonds, is identified with what we call our “country” as a whole. Again, in terms of patriotism, we love it because it shapes our identity, and because our identity shapes it. Love of country automatically acknowledges the limits of our comfort zone. It rejoices in a sort of omnipresent “thisness” which provides the concrete setting for our personal and communal life.

Much of the feeling of patriotism is bound up in the land, our land. Even in a highly mobile culture, the sense of both possession and belonging is very strong in patriotism, and these are two goods of human existence which always express themselves in particularities. These wholesome attachments are even stronger in non-mobile societies where the history of generations is connected to a particular region, or even a particular measured plot, where our ancestors lived and died, where our participation in the “thisness” of local history is actually tangible.

But some of this persists within regions which possess a common culture even where mobility is high. One looks in wonder at the geographical features and urban achievements of other civilizations, other cultures, other peoples, but there is something warm and special and familiar about our mountains, our rivers, our fields, our coasts, our towns and our cities. They are, in some measure, both an extension of family and the common ground from which our families have grown. We may not understand why we find ourselves in this time, this place, but we find it difficult to imagine ourselves “at home” anywhere else.

Country a Part of Providence

There is an important insight here, for our placement in a particular settings is an act of Providence. God forms and nourishes us through intermediate causes. Our own locations, customs and institutions are the means through which we gradually learn what it means to be human, and what it means to yearn for something more. Surely the case is very rare in which we have not received tremendous good from our particular environment, our particular country; just as surely we find that some aspects of it interfere with our ultimate ends, those ends which transcend place and time, both in terms of virtue and in terms of union with God. Providence is always a gift, but it is also always an invitation and a challenge.

For this reason, we love our country, its customs, its people, its particular “thisness” with an instinctive and almost filial affection. If someone from outside (a “foreigner”) finds our country’s habitual dispositions odd or inefficient, we immediately explain and defend them, even though—within the family, so to speak—we may criticize them ourselves. All of this is bound up with a respect and gratitude for the time and place and culture which has contributed so much to who we are. We are defensive because we see ourselves in our country, and see our country in ourselves.

But for this same reason, we do not idolize our country—or at least Catholics don’t. Not only can we see ways in which our countries have harmed as well as helped us, but we draw from nature itself certain perceptions and standards which transcend those of our own localities. Moreover, if we are Catholics we draw a higher awareness of reality, both mediated and unmediated, from God and His Church. Sometimes this can result in conflicting allegiances. It is not as if we can never be confused. But we find it far more painful when our own country falls from grace in some way, than when another country does so. We very rightly want to fix our own place before we attempt to fix the world.

The very transcendence of our perceptions, however, does tend to keep higher things higher. As a general rule, the serious Catholic will feel a stronger bond with a co-religionist from another country than with a countryman who does not share the Faith. It will still be wrenching for a Catholic in a secular country to pull up stakes and move, were such a thing possible, to a country which consistently honors his beliefs. But the hierarchy of values—the hierarchy of what we value—remains.

This Catholic awareness of a higher duty and a higher love makes Catholicism suspect in the eyes of those who place country at the apex of their hierarchy of being, and above all in the eyes of those who deify the State. Such a response is merely a counterfeit of patriotism. Our love of country is a good and wholly natural response to the gift of a God who sustains and teaches us in time and place and culture, manifesting all the goods of nature and human industry in ways meant to lead us to that “something more” for which we all instinctively yearn.

Country is part of the law of the gift, and we are right to cherish all of our gifts. But as with everything else, we love country for the sake of the Giver. We do not receive the gift and then push the Giver aside. It is this that tempers love of country and keeps it pure. It is this alone that properly orders patriotism.

Jeffrey Mirus holds a Ph.D. in intellectual history from Princeton University. A co-founder of Christendom College, he also pioneered Catholic Internet services. He is the founder of Trinity Communications and See full bio.

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  • Posted by: AgnesDay - Jul. 05, 2013 11:24 AM ET USA

    jg23753479--I feel this way when I cross state lines. North Carolina is more like Canada than my own state. But frequently, even at home, it is easy to remember that we have here no earthly city.

  • Posted by: koinonia - Jul. 04, 2013 7:12 PM ET USA

    Very important reflections. Our nations, our leaders, our prelates, etc (including ourselves) are successful inasmuch as their actions are rightly ordered. Certainly the prelate has a much higher bar than the non-Catholic politician, nonetheless there is a certain homogeny in all things real. Pilate's incredulity resonates today, but the Christian "will love for the sake of the Giver", an ordered love that gives testimony to the Truth. From this follows virtue.

  • Posted by: jg23753479 - Jul. 04, 2013 4:51 PM ET USA

    I suppose you are correct but the real question becomes what constitutes "our country." When I am in Ohio, or Los Angeles, or Seattle, for example, I feel a d├ępaysement not much unlike that I feel in Zurich or Paris. Yes, politically it's my country, but it is not mine in any affective sense; only in New England do I feel "at home". The 'patriotic' stuff, Jefferson, Franklin, Lincoln, etc.,leaves me cold. And some of it, e.g. playing music when a president enters a room,I find flat out silly.