Back when Ted Cruz announced his intention to run for President, Fr. James Schall, with characteristic astuteness, pointed out that some of the basic cultural rhetoric about “freedom” and “rights” on which modern politicians on both sides base their approaches is fundamentally flawed. These values and their accompanying jingo are so ambiguous in modern discussion that attempting to ground any coherent philosophy of government in them is building on virtual quicksand. Divorcing freedom from objective truth, we’re left without solid building blocks to build society:
“We have two radically different views of freedom,” wrote Schall, “but both sides use the same rhetoric to justify their position. By not emphasizing the truth side of freedom, Cruz seemed to leave himself open to the counter-argument. Thus, anyone is free to choose the opposite of any view of freedom. It all comes down to a kind of subjective liberty with no standards…. It is not sufficient today to ‘return’ to the American founding. The America that is ‘the world’s greatest country’, as Cruz called it, does not in practice exist. We are a country explained more by Aristotle’s discussion of democracy, and within that analysis, as a country that accepts a liberty with no limits.”
Schall’s analysis is quite on point: daily the headlines and newsfeeds demonstrate just how far America as a nation has strayed from the truth. And in light of the growing ignorance and division, accompanied by some top-down agendas of both left and right which are creating a society increasingly unfit for the most important building block—the family—some Americans may be experiencing some mixed emotions come this Fourth of July. It is hard to cheer for the flag of freedom when it is being waved most vigorously by those who advocate an unchecked culture of death.
Times like these make it difficult to love one’s country, in the traditional patriotic sense. “How do I love my country,” some might ask, “when it seems that in many ways, my country doesn’t love me, or others who stand for the truth?”
The cynic could reply simply that patriotism is a thing of the past—a self-glorifying vice encouraged by governments to help them pull the wool over the eyes of their citizens and hide the travesties and inhumanities laid at the nation’s doorstep.
And, indeed, on the other hand, there are those for whom patriotism has a blind and nigh-religious fervor to it, without reason or distinction—those who seem to conflate, for instance, respect for the Ten Commandments with respect for the Second Amendment. This temptation, to pour the fervor we no longer have for faith into frantic flag-waving, runs deep in the American psyche. As a society, we already tell the stories of the pilgrims at Plymouth Rock and of our Founding Fathers with a reverence as sincere and confident as if we were telling a Bible story.
But a less pessimistic or less incomplete thinker might turn to a healthier perspective: because our relationship to our country should be neither blind adulation and pride nor dejected cynicism and hatred, but a measured and devoted care.
G.K. Chesterton offered an analogy which I find particularly helpful for outlining a healthy relationship of respect and concern for one’s country as the proper foundation of patriotism.
A real patriot, GKC explains, is one who loves his country enough to see her faults and care about what happens to her. And it is shameful and sad when a man espouses either a sort of anti-patriotic apathy and claims total indifference about what happens to his country, or a blind pseudo-religious patriotism that cannot see his country’s sins:
“To one who loves his fatherland, for instance, our boasted indifference …. is mere mysterious gibberism…. It is the essence of love to be sensitive…. ‘My country, right or wrong,’ is a thing that no patriot would think of saying except in a desperate case. It is like saying, ‘My mother, drunk or sober.’ No doubt if a decent man’s mother took to drink he would share her troubles to the last; but to talk as if he would be in a state of gay indifference as to whether his mother took to drink or not is certainly not the language of men who know the great mystery.”
Like it or not, our country is a social mother to us; and she may be drunk, with power, or selfishness, or relativism—indeed, she may be an inveterate alcoholic in one of these areas—but we have a natural duty to love her and try to save her—even from herself. Because we would not be without her. And because, like a mother, she is all too easy to take for granted.