Wednesday, July 4, 2012

Of Patriots and Patriotism

Today is July 4; hence my thoughts on patriotism.  A “patriot” is someone who loves his or her country, making patriotism a worthy virtue and even a natural one, something like loving one’s family.  But love of family and of country comes in many varieties and can be used and abused in many ways.  Here I want to ponder a few of those uses and abuses.

First, one of my least favorite abuses: turning “patriotism” into a political issue.  The politicizing of patriotism, of which we’ve seen plenty, especially over the past decade, seems to me one of the most unpatriotic things one can do.  Arguing over who is most patriotic, who is most truly “American,” and using claims and counterclaims of patriotism and lack of patriotism as a tool for partisan gain—these are a lot like Christians arguing and fighting each other over the question of who are the truest followers of Christ.  “For verily, verily, I”—meaning Christ himself—“say unto you, he that hath the spirit of contention is not of me, but is of the devil, who is the father of contention, and he stirreth up the hearts of men to contend with anger, one with another” (3 Nephi 11:29).
In a similar way, to turn love of country into an issue that divides citizens against each other is deeply ironic—and unfortunately, it damages the very country one claims to love.  Obviously, this is not a sensible way for people to show their love for their country.   A country consists of many things, including a shared history, traditions, institutions, and values—as well as a geographical location.  But above all a country consists of the relationships among its citizens, what Lincoln called “our bonds of affection.”  True patriotism seeks to nurture and strengthen those bonds, not strain or break them.

Another abuse of patriotism—or to put it more kindly, misunderstanding of it—is to confuse patriotism with self-centered, competitive pride.  The partisan conflict over patriotism is pretty much a way of claiming, “I’m more patriotic than you are.”  And as with all self-exaltation, the result is really self-diminishment: among other things, those who exalt themselves are abased by the way they make themselves mean-spirited and dim-sighted.  And as many have pointed out, Pride is the "Great Sin" because it puts human beings into competition and even enmity against each other, as well as against God.  True patriotism requires humility (realizing one’s dependence on things much greater than oneself), generosity (toward one’s fellow citizens), and gratitude (for all the blessings that come with the place, people, and history that constitute one’s nation).  Pride, of the sort I've just described, is incompatible with all of these virtues.
But that doesn't mean patriotism is simply acquiesence in the current conditions and actions of one's nation.  I believe that true patriotism not only allows but requires raising questions about problems and evils within the nation—as long as the questions are raised in a spirit of civility, respect, and cooperation (along with those virtues of humility, generosity, and gratitude already mentioned).  The point of raising the questions is to help bring about constructive change, to work with others to find solutions, not just to criticize.  One reason for civility and humility in this enterprise is that, first, I can’t be sure I have a perfect understanding of either the problems or the solutions, and, second, even if I did, I couldn’t solve the problems myself.  I have to work with others.  That’s the essence of what it means to be part of a community.  And a community doesn’t work very well when one segment has complete power while disenfranchising the rest or when “compromise” becomes such a dirty word that politics becomes nothing more than a perpetual civil war.

“Pride” sometimes means something more benign than the “great sin” I’ve described.  It may (to quote the Oxford English Dictionary) refer to feeling “gratified, pleased, glad”—or (as I believe C. S. Lewis put it) feeling warm-hearted affection because of the good things one sees and experiences, including the good in others.  To be “proud” of one’s family can mean to be grateful for belonging to it and to enjoy the affection and other blessings that come with it.  It also means to feel and act on responsibility to serve the others in one's family.  The problem comes when family pride becomes a matter of competition and enmity, when one family pits itself against others (à la Romeo and Juliet).
I believe the same thing is true of patriotism.  We should be glad to belong to our nation; we should feel warm-hearted affection for our fellow citizens; and we should seek to serve our fellow citizens.  But if national pride becomes a matter of pitting one nation against another, such pride partakes of the evils of “the great sin.”  We are members of humankind, citizens of the world, as well as citizens of our own country.  We should ask God to bless the people of all nations, not just our own.  We should seek the good of all, not just ourselves.  Not to do that is to endanger our nation even as we seek to exalt it.  Because we are all members of one another, to demean the rest of humankind as we seek to exalt ourselves will end up damaging us.  And I believe it will also diminish the effectiveness of God’s protective care because, with the wrong kind of pride, we put ourselves into a wrong relationship with Him.  Perhaps that is one reason an ancient prophet said of a proud people: “the pride of this nation . . . hath proven their destruction except they should repent” (Moroni 8:27).  He was referring to the Nephites, in reference to whom it was said later: “beware of pride, lest ye become as the Nephites of old” (Doctrine and Covenants 38:39).

One of my favorite sayings of Joseph Smith is one reminding us of God’s generous and universal love: “while one portion of the human race is judging and condemning the other without mercy, the Great Parent of the universe looks upon the whole of the human family with a fatherly care and paternal regard; He views them as His offspring, and without any of those contracted feelings that influence the children of men.”  The implication is that, while we have a special responsibility for our own family and our own nation, because they are closest to us, at the same time we should seek the good of all humankind and see all as our brothers and sisters.  We all, in fact, belong to the most expansive of families, the family of God. 
I also love both of Lincoln’s inaugural addresses.  I’m especially fond of the second one (the one that includes "with malice toward none" and other remarkable expressions of charity and humility).  Only in recent years (partly because our nation’s current president loves to quote from it) have I become familiar with Lincoln’s first inaugural address and have begun to have similar feelings about it.  Lincoln spoke knowing that his election had provoked negative feelings among many of his fellow citizens, especially in the South.  He hoped to avoid the civil conflict that ended up taking place.  It is remarkable that, in the situation he faced, he sought to “speak the truth with love.”  Among other things, he said: “We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained it must not break our bonds of affection. The mystic chords of memory, stretching from every battlefield and patriot grave to every living heart and hearthstone all over this broad land, will yet swell the chorus of the Union, when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.”
I am happy to say I count Lincoln as a great patriot, one of the greatest who has lived in the nation I am blessed to belong to.  I am also grateful for many other true patriots, including our nation’s founders.  I’ve enjoyed reading about them, even reading many of their words.  They were imperfect human beings, yet great ones and ones who acted with courage and inspiration.  I feel very confident in saying they would not recognize themselves (at least not much) in some of those who claim to be their successors—I’m thinking of so-called “Tea Party patriots,” among others, many of whom don’t seem to know much about the founders or about the details of the Constitution they claim to be defending.  I’m grateful for the Constitution, including the many remarkable elements that have made it of enduring value to the nation, including the capacity built into the Constitution for the document to be amended and interpreted and improved.
Other patriots include, of course, those who risk their lives for the common good, through military service and in many other ways.  But all of us should be patriots.  Some of the greatest patriots, I believe, are parents who seek to nurture their children; teachers and others who seek to encourage the blossoming of all that is good in those they work with; and those who use their means and skills, whether in the "private" or the "public" sector, in service of the common good.  Many are acting for the good of others simply because that is who they are.  Maybe the truest patriots are those who don’t call themselves patriots, who are not even aware of the splendor and depth of their patriotism.

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