Defining Patriotism

With today being the anniversary of our nation’s birth, I thought it appropriate to discuss the concept of patriotism.  These days, patriotism (or what passes as patriotism) seems to be all the rage.  American flags dot houses, cars, and even clothing.  At political gatherings the pledge of allegiance is recited in rote.  Some people shout, “America…love it or leave it!”

But what is patriotism? defines the word as “devoted love, support, and defense of one’s country; national loyalty.”  I would argue that although this definition has become the standard in today’s society, patriotism is, in my mind, something more.

Consider, if you will, American revolutionary leaders such as George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, or Ben Franklin, just to name a few.  Typically when one hears the term “patriot”, one conjures up the idea of such men or women of their caliber.  But are they patriots according to the above definition?  Well, I would say no.

Each of them was an influential man within the colonies and each was a subject of the British crown.  One can hardly say that they were patriots and that they loved their country (Britain), given that they sought to deprive that nation of a huge land mass and all of the citizens, taxes, and natural wealth that accompanied it.  After all, they rebelled against that country in accordance with their support of the principles of self-determination and a limited government. Wouldn’t a true patriot in the colonies during the 1770s be a Tory, flying the Union Jack while singing God Save The King?  Furthermore, considering they did not support the excesses of the British government should each have simply packed up his belongings and left the country, thus leaving their countrymen to their fate under King George III?  I’m certainly glad that they didn’t take the simplistic “love it or leave it” mentality.

Clearly the quoted definition of patriotism isn’t quite right.  It better describes nationalism.  But what is nationalism?  Among the definitions of nationalism on one finds “devotion and loyalty to one’s own nation” very similar to their term patriotism, as well as “excessive patriotism; chauvinism”.

As far as I can tell, especially among some of my conservative brothers and sisters, hyper-nationalism has more or less become equated with patriotism.  The hyper-nationalist believes that his or her country is vastly superior to any other, that one should love the country unconditionally, and that any national flaws that the country may possess should be ignored or talked about behind closed doors because no one, especially citizens, should treat the nation with anything other than the highest respect.  Love of the country has become a fanatical devotion and the slightest criticism of anything American or an American policy is cause for an inquisition and cries of heresy.

While patriotism, as displayed by Jefferson, is a desirable trait for all people to hold, nationalism is not necessarily a universal good.  Patriotism elevates principles and the best ideals of a nation while nationalism merely promotes the nation state and preserves the status quo, be it for better or worse.   The terms are not mutually exclusive, but being a patriot does not necessarily make one a nationalist nor does being a nationalist necessarily make one a patriot.  Both comprise an element of love of country, but true patriotism is based upon ideology.

As for myself, I do not love this country for the 3.7 million square miles it covers on the planet, the colors on its flag, the monuments it creates, or the tune of its anthem.  All of these aspects are trivial.  By contrast, I love this country for the people who inhabit it, the principles under which we have consented to be governed, and the ideals of liberty, which gave rise to the nation’s prosperity and our freedom of conscious.

So should Americans love their country?  Absolutely!  But don’t mistake nationalism for patriotism.  Merely displaying an American flag every July 4th does not make one a good patriot in the same way that that erecting a Christmas tree every December 25th does not make one a good Christian.  Devotion to a country, like devotion to a religion, requires much more, a commitment to ethics.

Nationalism has masqueraded as patriotism for far too long.  True patriotism, in my mind, is more like our patriots of old; it requires knowledge of our history, the realization of the uniqueness of the American experiment, and a burning desire to preserve both our liberty and culture.

My country, the United States of America is a great country.  If one truly loves it, one must be prepared to defend, not just a scrap of soil, but also the far more valuable spirit for which it stands.  Nationalists love the country but only for its own sake but often do nothing to correct its flaws.  Patriots by comparison love the country for its underlying values and strive to ensure that these principles will be upheld not only in the present generation and in future ones.

So, with these thoughts in mind, are you a patriot?

Enjoy Independence Day!