A Reflection on the Virtue of Patriotism in a Time of National DIstress

Yesterday, January 6th (the official day of Epiphany) was quite and epiphany of its own,. Currently in our country we are dramatically and almost evenly divided. The huge crowd that gathered yesterday was largely peaceful and came to express concerns about the conducting of the last election. Fine; and probably worth further investigation. But the rioters who broke into the Capital acted immorally and deserve the same condemnation as those who rioted in the racial demonstrations of the summer. Legitimate grievances do not allow the endangerment of life, the destruction of property, or the desecration of sacred or  special places.

None of us will be happy about the outcome of every situation, debate or election. Traditionally we have accepted defeats and used legitimate processes to continue our struggle for what we think is right or best. That seems far less the case today with our burning cities and now violated Capital. Any talk about understanding the anger of rioters simply adds to the injury and seeks to excuse what is heinous and immoral behavior.

Personally, I have never been so worried about the condition and future of our country as I am today; not simply because we have deep differences, but especially because we no longer seem to have a way to resolve our differences civilly.  It is the tyranny and chaos of relativism of which I have written elsewhere  Click HERE.

There was a time when we all agreed that we loved our Country and only wanted what we thought best for it.. Even that agreed premise seems less obvious today. Yet it still seems to me that healthy patriotism is among the first places we should look to begin a recovery.

Love of one’s country, patriotism, is related to the fourth commandment. The Catechism of the Catholic Church teaches,

It is the duty of citizens to contribute to the good of society in a spirit of truth, justice, solidarity and freedom. The love and service of one’s country follow from the duty of gratitude and belong to the order of charity (CCC #2239).

Much of this is reflected in a beautiful song written for the Ken Burns series “The War.” It is called “American Anthem.” The lyrics are touching and moving. The central themes are just what the Catechism teaches: gratitude and the serving of the common good. Let’s explore some of the themes of this song on this Memorial Day of 2019.

The song begins in this way:

All we’ve been given
By those who came before
The dream of a nation
Where freedom would endure
The work and prayers
Of centuries
Have brought us to this day

So we begin with gratitude. The works and prayers of centuries have brought us to this day. Each day we wake up in a land of beauty and plenty. We live in freedom because others died to win it and protect it. We drive on roads that others paved, make use of an electrical grid that others created and built. We depend on technologies that others developed. The Constitution, our legal system, civil society, the Church and her time-tested teachings—all these things and many more we have received from the hard work and ingenuity of others. Every day I am blessed to be able to walk into a beautiful church built by others.

Those who came before us were not sinless, but they exhibited bravery, virtue, perseverance, and patience in carefully setting forth a nation and a commonwealth that we often carelessly take for granted. When I ponder these things, I am overcome with gratitude.

The song also speaks of the dream of a nation in which freedom would endure. Today, many interpret freedom as the license to do whatever one pleases, but true freedom is the ability to obey God, live virtuously, and benefit from the fruits of that behavior: freedom from excess and the slavery to sin. It is only in this freedom, a freedom from self-absorption, that one can leave the sort of legacy of which the song next speaks:

What shall be our legacy?
What will our children say?
Let them say of me
I was one who believed
In sharing the blessings
I received
Let me know in my heart
When my days are through
America
America
I gave my best to you

Remember that America is not merely a nation-state or a legal entity—it is our patria, our homeland, from which we get the word “patriotism.” There is both a fatherly and motherly image we can derive from our country, America. We are sprung from its loins and nurtured in its womb. We have shared in its freely bestowed resources, taken our meals from its rich soils, and learned from the best of its teachings and traditions.

Thus, patriotism is a beautiful virtue linked to the fourth commandment “Honor thy father and thy mother.” Sadly, some people today dismiss the virtue of patriotism, calling it “nationalism” and portraying it as evidence of xenophobia. That some have exhibited extremes of patriotism does not remove the truth that patriotism is a virtue and is both commended to us and commanded of us. From it we derive a requirement to do our part to protect, preserve, and contribute to the common good. We are to leave a legacy that others will recognize, that we carried our share of the burden, that we did our very best for the land and people we are called to love.

Each generation from the plains
To distant shore
with the gifts they were given
Were determined
To leave more
Battles fought together
Acts of conscience fought alone
These are the seeds
From which America has grown

It is perhaps enough to simply do no harm or merely hand on what we received, but love is expansive. It leads us leave to our descendants more than we received. It is the American and human spirit to build on what is received, to bring things to greater perfection and beauty.

As the song mentions, we often do this by working together, but sometimes we must take up the lonely and often-despised role of the prophet summoning the nation to greater justice and holiness. Both traditions are needed. Many of us have had to raise our voices in protest at the straying of our land from its biblical roots, but this has been and is done out of love for our people and land, so that we attain to a greater and more perfect union.

In times like these a song like this feels healing. It ends this way:

In sharing the blessings
I received
Let me know in my heart
When my days are through
America
America
I gave my best to you

America
America
I gave my best to you.

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