From Bruce Frohen:
Patriotism, or its lack, has been in the news again, as happens every now and then in our hotly contested political culture. President Obama’s persistent references to what he deems to be the history of oppression in our nation, and in western civilization more generally, have led some to question his “patriotism,” by which is meant his love of country. Such arguments may or may not be useful as a means of carrying on political debate. But they certainly throw light on varying conceptions of our duties toward our country and nation. I mention country and nation separately to highlight the particular object of my concern, namely, the question of just what it is to which we owe our “patriotic” loyalty. Is it a geographical unit? A cultural unity or people? Or is it a specific political regime that we think has a rightful call on our love? And what form, and extent, should this love take?
Americans in particular have a reputation for placing love of “country” high on their list of self-described virtues. Yet our conception of that country often is described in specifically political terms. The Pledge of Allegiance, written in the late nineteenth century by the Christian socialist minister Francis Bellamy and adopted by the US Congress in 1942, aims to reinforce loyalty “to the republic for which” the flag “stands.” A significant strain in American ideology connects the greatness of the United States to political principles, usually equality and democracy, putatively found in the Declaration of Independence and reinvigorated by various political figures (especially Abraham Lincoln) and political movements (like the civil rights movement).
The claims for this political conception of patriotism are strong in the United States, to which so many people came in search of the freedom to lead lives of faith and virtue disallowed in their homelands, and in which people from a variety of ethnic backgrounds have been joined by their pursuit of economic well-being in the context of ordered liberty. But critics of this formulation may point to the darker side of an ideology that posits a particular set of principles as the definition of a nation and the thing to which we owe “allegiance.” Various ideologies, from communism to socialism to fascism, have demanded the loyalties of the people, who have been formed into various youth, neighborhood, and other “patriotic” associations to further the cause.
Dissenting persons and communities have been stripped of their legal and customary rights and even exterminated on the grounds of “disloyalty” to a ruling political dogma—again, usually some form of equality. Many Americans would deny the danger of any such ideology in our country, particularly given the attachment of our political religion to democratic forms. But dissenters from contemporary “progressive” ideologies continue to be shunned and have their careers ruined. It also is worthwhile noting the involvement of the United States in a variety of “wars of liberation” and “nation-building” adventures that have resulted in tens of thousands of deaths and have their roots in the vision of patriotism as a kind of political loyalty transcending practical questions of human decency and affection.
The conviction that Americans by nature are committed to specific political principles generally is presented as a necessary bulwark against various forms of “blood and iron” patriotism, like that of Otto von Bismark. It was Bismark who consolidated Germany into a Prussian-dominated nation state in part through a kulturkampf waged against the Catholic Church and culture. Racism, ethnic violence, and various forms of antidemocratic politics are said to arise from too close an identification of the nation with a specific culture or people. And it clearly is the case that such forms of violence, even genocide, have resulted in part from the capturing of political power by one group that chooses to identify its racial or ethnic makeup as deserving and requiring supremacy over others identified as disloyal by their very being.
The choice, then, seems a stark one; one not likely to encourage attachment to any form of patriotism. In the first case we see a kind of political religion, in which ideological commitments trump all other attachments and may even justify immoral actions for the greater good they promise. Religion itself, in the sense of a way of life binding a community to a particular conception of the good and how it can be pursued with virtue, becomes a tool of the state. Lost, then, are the natural checks on power provided by religious institutions and standards of conduct meant to restrain human appetite and pride in the name of faith, hope, and love.
In the second case, we see a civil religion, in which the people is identified as a political as well as cultural highest good, to which all other goods must be subordinated. Many proponents of civil religion deny the dangers of such identification by ignoring or denying its cultural component. Robert Bellah, for example, identifies “civil” religion as a form of quasi-religious attachment to American democratic principles. He deems this form of public religion largely benign if kept subordinate to his chosen political principles (equality), thereby confusing civil with political religion. But true “civil” religion, or attachment to “the best of” a people, is merely an invitation to turn ethnic, geographical, or other attachments into a kind of higher calling, akin to that of politics, and Bellah’s “civil” religion is merely a political replacement for its civil counterpart.
What then, of the patriot? If both civil and political religion result, in effect, in a religious attachment to a regime that justifies moral enormities in the name of ideology (including an ideology of ethnic identity) is there no virtue in the love of country? Is the soldier either a fool or a cad, willing to kill for inhumane reasons?
Of course not. Patriotism merely means love of one’s own. It is an attachment to one’s land and people, as well as the form of life (including the political form of life) they lead. This form of love is virtuous to the extent that it is well ordered. One naturally loves one’s own—the people with whom one has grown up, the form of life in which one is raised, the political and economic customs one shares with one’s fellows. The desire to improve one’s own is natural enough, though increasingly promoted by contemporary ideologies. That desire generally and properly is rooted in the customs, principles, and assumptions already present in one’s culture.
Thus the political structures of medieval Europe were constantly under pressure from the demands of the Church both as an institution and as a set of moral, political, and legal principles formulated through canon law, codes of honor (the chivalric code was a very real, active motivator of human conduct for many), and political debate. The principles were internal in the sense that they were generated by forces within the culture. At the same time, they transcended merely political and merely ethnic loyalties and considerations. One’s patriotism, or love of country, was properly limited and even conditioned by love of God, of Church, and of other associations within the political, ethnic, and geographical horizon. Particularly at a time before “country” had been consolidated and simplified into the territorial nation state, love of one’s own pulled one in many directions, subjected one to many sets of duties, and allowed one to pursue the split and conflicting loyalties natural to a good life in a manner capable of spurring one to virtue and decency as great deeds for what might or might not be truly great causes.
The danger of patriotism is not its love, or even the willingness it provides to people to sacrifice for their country. The danger comes about when the nation state, the people, or some other specific unit within a society claims sovereignty over all others, demanding loyalty to itself above all. For such loyalty belongs to God alone and is properly put into effect only through the balancing of moral duties to those around him, in all the rich variety of circumstances and associations provided by a decent life.
Bruce P. Frohnen is Professor of Law at The Ohio Northern University Pettit College of Law.