Following the terrorist attacks of September 11, patriotism, for the first time in a long time, became fashionable in America once again. This should prompt reflection among Christians, for the world has always doubted whether Christians—who, after all, like to sing such hymns as “I’m but a stranger here, heav’n is my home”—can really share the love of country felt by other citizens. Even as reliable a commentator as Walter Berns, in his recent book Making Patriots, attributes something of this doubt to the American Founders themselves, who, though not hostile to religion, deliberately set up a system in which “we are first of all citizens, and only secondarily Christians, Jews, Muslims, or of any other religious persuasion.” If many Christians, Jews, and Muslims are likely to disagree with Berns on this point, that only serves to emphasize the dilemma. Nor is the dilemma merely theoretical, for it is a hard fact of political life that the state needs citizens who feel at least some love for their country. Periods of crisis like the present remind us, often tragically, that our security and freedom ultimately rest upon the willingness of citizens to fight and possibly to die for their country should the need arise. It is therefore of some importance to consider why we, as citizens, might come to feel the love of country that the state so urgently requires.
For if it is clear that the state requires it, it is less obvious that we can be expected to feel it. Indeed, the problem of how to inspire love of country has been one of the enduring questions of political thought. Plato emphasized this difficulty in the Republic, where Socrates proposes that the only way to ensure the loyalty of citizens is to tell them what he calls a “noble lie”: that they have all been born from the earth and are thus, in a literal sense, blood relatives not only of each other, but also of the very land they inhabit. The city can rest secure in the love of its members, Socrates suggests, only by pretending that it is as natural as the family, that fellow citizens are as intimately related as brothers and sisters, and that the land itself is their common mother.
This difficulty is even more pronounced in the theory of liberalism that forms the basis for our own political system. Plato, after all, described a Greek city–state that actively sought to mold virtuous citizens and to sustain the good life for human beings. Such a city, aiming to provide goods nobler than mere self–preservation, could plausibly ask citizens to die on its behalf. But liberalism abandons such grand political pretensions and settles for a state that merely protects the individual rights of fundamentally self–interested people. This is evident in the standard liberal model of the social contract. On this model, government arises from the voluntary agreement of individuals to submit to a common authority. They are willing to do so because government helps protect the things about which they care most—their lives, their liberty, their property. But if I think of political society in these terms, as simply a useful means for protecting my private, personal interests, what could possibly motivate me to fight, and perhaps die, for my country? Why would I stand fast on the front lines in the face of enemy fire? It is hard to know why a person whose driving motivation is the desire to preserve his life, liberty, and property would ever want to make a deal that might require his death. After all, if you join the state only to preserve your life, then a state that asks you to die for it is a pretty bad bargain.
Love of country has proved a special problem not only for liberals, but also for Christians. Roman Catholics in particular have frequently been viewed as unreliable and potentially subversive subjects because of their loyalty to Rome. Such suspicion of Catholics has continued even as a quite recent phenomenon. Many will remember, for example, John F. Kennedy’s famous speech before the Greater Houston Ministerial Association in 1960, promising that if elected he would not take orders from the Vatican. Much earlier, the philosopher Jean–Jacques Rousseau, anxious that citizens should be united and share a single will, criticized Catholicism for giving them “two legislative orders, two rulers, two homelands, and put[ting] them under two contradictory obligations.” Even Locke, arguing for religious toleration, conceded that not every group could be tolerated: “That Church can have no right to be tolerated by the Magistrate, which is constituted upon such a bottom that all those who enter into it do thereby, ipso facto, deliver themselves up to the Protection and Service of another Prince”—an exception aimed, presumably, at Catholics loyal to the Pope.
But the blunt, and to modern ears questionable, charge of allegiance to a foreign prince has not been the deepest source of skepticism about Christians’ political loyalty. When Rousseau makes his jab at Catholicism, he is only noting a particularly egregious example of what he regards as a more general problem: that traditional Christian belief has always given people “two homelands.” For Christianity directs our hearts and minds toward the promised land beyond the grave and commands us to strive for the rewards of eternal rather than temporal life. In Rousseau’s words, “The Christian’s homeland is not of this world.” Nor is it only the enemies of the faith, like Rousseau, who attest to this difficulty. St. Augustine famously declared that Christians’ primary loyalty is not to the cities of this life, but rather to the City of God, which, in his words, “calls out citizens from all nations and so collects a society of aliens”—aliens, that is, in our own sense of those who are not citizens and whose loyalties are therefore likely to be divided. Similarly, in one of his favorite metaphors, Augustine describes the City of God as passing through this world “like a pilgrim in a foreign land” and our life on earth as “the time of our pilgrimage, in exile from the Lord.”
Fostering love of country, then, has always been recognized as a problem, and it has posed special difficulties, in different ways, for liberals and Christians. Since most of those reading this are likely to be Christian liberals of one stripe or another, this is a matter worthy of further consideration. Must the state simply accept that we cannot, in the end, be counted upon? Assuming that we cannot really pull off a version of Plato’s noble lie, even if we wanted to, should citizens simply conclude that the best thing to do in a pinch is cut and run? Or is there some way that we—even we Christian citizens of a liberal state—can justify loving our country in the way it seems to require?
There are, I think, two basic reasons why people are likely to love their country. The distinction between the two is suggested nicely by the words of a love song from the old Rodgers and Hammerstein musical Cinderella. The song asks the question, “Do I love you because you’re beautiful, or are you beautiful because I love you?” Anyone who has been in love will immediately recognize the difficulty of answering that question. We might love someone because of certain good qualities that person possesses—beauty, for example, or virtue. We might, however, attribute those good qualities to our beloved precisely because we are already, for some other reason, in love. Anyone who has ever wondered about a smitten friend, “What could she possibly see in him?,” will recognize the problem. For the truth is that love, though not, as some claim, blind, does see with eyes of its own.
So also with love of country. We might think our country just, or noble, or a shining city upon a hill, and love it on account of its good qualities. On the other hand, we might be more inclined to attribute justice or nobility to our country, precisely because we already love it for some other reason. But why would we love it, if not for its good qualities?
The answer, I think, is not hard to find. Most of us, I suspect, love our country for the very simple reason that it happens to be our home. The love of home is surely among the most common and universal human feelings. So many memories are bound up with one’s native land; so many friends and neighbors inhabit its familiar places; well–known and fondly remembered sights and sounds, even the very smells, can arouse deep inner longings and stir our hearts.
Recently I had occasion for the first time in several years to drive through the part of northeastern Ohio, near Cleveland, where I grew up. As we drove through the city and I caught glimpses of old familiar sights, I could feel the excitement growing within me, and it was with great pleasure that I pointed out to my four–year–old son the Terminal Tower, the best–known landmark in Cleveland’s skyline. In a certain sense—as my wife insisted on pointing out—this was mildly ludicrous, because the small town where I grew up is actually about thirty miles west of Cleveland, and I probably wasn’t in the city itself more than a few times a year, usually for an Indians game. But that only serves to illustrate my point: even though Cleveland itself had not been my home, it was close enough and bound up with enough memories, like going to ballgames with my father, that just driving through the city and seeing its skyline could warm my heart. The familiar sights of home can do that. And this emotion goes far toward explaining why most people love their native land. Most of us, most of the time, probably love our country less because it is good than simply because it is ours.
Is either of these two possible motives for loving our country—that it is good, or that it is ours—preferable, or even defensible? Given this choice, we are likely, I think, to be drawn toward the first option: loving our country because it is good. The second—loving it merely because it happens to be ours—seems almost irrational, less a reason than an emotion, little more, indeed, than a prejudice. A common prejudice, no doubt, but a prejudice hardly becomes more justifiable simply by being widely shared. The first motivation, by contrast, appears to be not only a reason, but a good reason, perhaps even the best one imaginable. Presumably our country is worthy of our love precisely to the extent that it is good—to the extent that it is just, free, humane, generous. And how could we continue to love a country that we knew lacked these qualities? Surely we would not recommend loyalty to a state we considered unjust. Christians, especially, may be drawn to this point of view. We are commanded to love one another and to serve our neighbors, and we have been granted some insight into what a truly just city would be like. Should we not love the actual earthly countries in which we live when they strive to pattern themselves on the model of that Heavenly City and reject them when they do not?
But loyalty based upon a country’s goodness or justice is potentially a very dangerous thing. Indeed, Christians are particularly well–positioned to see this, for they understand that our earthly polities are, in truth, never fully just. As Augustine pointed out long ago, “true justice is found only in that commonwealth whose founder and ruler is Christ”—the City of God, and not in any of our earthly cities. Those who consider their country worthy of their love only if it is good are doomed to perpetual disappointment.
Disappointment, however, is not the worst effect of such dashed hopes. The frustration of those who, dissatisfied with the shortcomings of political life, wish to make it measure up to some ideal standard of justice, religious or secular, can be a lethal phenomenon. Edmund Burke saw the results of this frustration already in the French Revolution, but we have numerous more recent examples of those who, unwilling to love a country stained by imperfection, chose, regardless of the cost, to substitute some preferred vision of their own for the country they actually inhabited. Their names provide a roll call of the twentieth century’s greatest atrocities: Hitler, Stalin, Mao, Pol Pot. That century was littered with the corpses of those who paid the price for these tyrants’ unwillingness to love their country unless it became, in their own eyes, beautiful. As Burke put it, by hating vices too much, they came to love men too little.
Is not the second alternative, however—loving my country merely because it is my own—equally bad? This appears to be nothing more than a form of narrow parochialism, an attitude nicely captured in a play by John Galsworthy entitled Loyalties. The tragedy of this play is generated by problems of social class and ethnic prejudice, and Galsworthy emphasizes the destructiveness of such loyalty to one’s own. In a striking passage at the center of the drama, one of the characters notes that such loyalties are indistinguishable from mere prejudice and can only create unresolvable conflicts: “Prejudices, Adela—or are they loyalties—I don’t know—criss–cross—we all cut each other’s throats from the best of motives.” If loyalty to one’s own country is only a prejudice of this sort, it is likely to produce a “my country, right or wrong” attitude. And such an attitude seems most conducive to a kind of self–serving nationalism that places one’s own country above all others. It may be true that the twentieth century witnessed much ideological fanaticism, but surely it also taught us the dangers of proud, self–interested jingoism and nationalist fervor. Perhaps frustrated love–of–the–good produces destructive revolution, but chauvinistic love–of–our–own easily leads to ethnic conflict and outright war among peoples. That is little more than a choice between devils. If these are our options, it might be best to give up on love of country altogether and see whether we can muddle through without it.
From a purely secular perspective, it may well be difficult to prevent the simple love of one’s own from descending into dangerous nationalism. From a Christian perspective, however, there is actually a very good reason for this love of one’s own. We can begin to understand what this reason might be by thinking for a moment not about love of country, but rather about a different kind of love, that of parents for their children. Children and countries share an important characteristic: we do not normally choose them. Rather, they are simply presented to us, and we take what we get. Parents love their children even when they are not beautiful; and they love them even when they are not good. Indeed, a parent who made his love conditional upon a child’s maintaining some particular standard of virtuous behavior would be rightly regarded as something of a monster. Naturally, parents hope their children will become good, and they normally spend considerable time and effort trying to bring about this desirable result. But the child’s goodness is not the reason for his parents’ love; they do not love him because he is good. Parents love their children, rather, simply because they are their children.
This, I think, makes perfectly good sense from a Christian perspective. Christians are called to love as God loves us, which ultimately means to love every human being as a unique individual, in the fullest sense of that overused term. For most people, the family is the arena in which we are most profoundly challenged to attain this goal, because it is in the family that we most regularly, directly, and intensely encounter other people in the full uniqueness of their personality, with all of their foibles and idiosyncracies, all the hidden nooks and crannies of the soul that are never fully revealed but of which family members, for better and for worse, catch privileged glimpses. This little world of rich human interaction is the first and fundamental, though not the only, context in which we are called to learn what it really means to love another human being, however different he may be from us. And in this task the exquisite arbitrariness of the gift of children is a tremendous advantage. For it means that we cannot go easy on ourselves by picking those whom we are predisposed to like, or with whom we share important interests, or who are likely to become rich and famous; we must simply take whoever comes. The Christian, however, will not find this unreasonable, for the particular children whom we receive are, of course, not really arbitrary at all. We did not select them, it is true, but they were nevertheless chosen, and chosen for a purpose, by one whose wisdom is greater than ours; and we trust that He knows what He is doing. And so parents love their children, not because they are good, but because they are the ones whom God has given.
With this model of parental love before us, we are in a better position to understand the significance of loving that which is our own. That significance arises from what we might call the meaningfulness of our context in a particular place and time. I have suggested that we accept our unchosen children as a gift whereby God seeks to teach us the meaning of love by calling us to the task of loving these particular individuals. But those children are only one part of the broader context into which God has placed us, and that context—in which we learn the concrete meaning of love by learning to love concrete, particular persons—is, like the children, largely independent of our choosing. We can affect parts of it, of course, but in large measure it is simply given. We do not choose the town where we are born or raised; we choose neither our children nor our parents; many people in the world, of course, do not even choose their spouse, who is chosen for them; indeed, we do not even choose our friends exactly, since, though we select them to an extent, we do so from among those who merely happen to be around us. And, of course, we do not choose our country. The broad context of our lives is largely not of our choosing. Yet it does not seem troubling for people to love their hometown, their children and parents, their husband or wife, their friends. Why should their country be any different?
This may seem like a peculiar conclusion. Why should we feel any love for the arbitrary results of fate? In a certain sense it is true that what I have been calling our context is simply a matter of chance. From a Christian perspective, however, that is only a partial truth. For from that perspective, our context—the place in which we find ourselves, the people by whom we are surrounded—is charged with moral meaning, because God has placed us there. It is our context, the one that He has given us, and if we have eyes to see and ears to hear, then we are called to appreciate the goodness of His gifts. Like parents called to love the children they have not chosen, we are all called to love those around us, for whom God has made us at least partially responsible. He has given us, so to speak, a charge, and if we refuse our stations, it suggests that we think Him mistaken to have placed us here. In its own way, an unwillingness to occupy those stations reflects that desire to be the Author of the play, and not a mere character in it, that under other circumstances we would not hesitate to call the sin of pride. Accepting with love and gratitude our context, the place and people whom God has given us, is one way of recognizing that we are creatures who, unlike our Creator, must live in a particular place at a particular time.
But doesn’t this noble rhetoric still conceal a danger, one suggested, in fact, by the Rodgers and Hammerstein verse alluded to earlier? “Do I love you because you’re beautiful, or are you beautiful because I love you?” If we love our country, not because of any goodness or beauty it may possess, but simply because it is our own, do we not become prone, like the lover in the song, to attribute to it a beauty or a goodness it does not possess? Are we not likely to make of it a false god? This is indeed a danger, one against which we must remain continually vigilant. But it is much more of a danger, I think, for the secular nationalist than for one operating from the Christian perspective I have sought to describe here. For nothing in my argument requires making any special claim of superiority on our own behalf; quite the contrary, it relies heavily upon the assumption that no country can claim to be truly just or good. To love our country in the way I have described we need not imagine that it is ultimately better or more virtuous than any other. The differences we observe in other countries need give rise to no hostility, nor need we seek to assert ourselves at others’ expense. As C. S. Lewis has written,
Patriotism of this kind is not in the least aggressive. It asks only to be let alone. It becomes militant only to protect what it loves. In any mind which has a pennyworth of imagination it produces a good attitude towards foreigners. . . . Once you have realized that the Frenchmen like café complet just as we like bacon and eggs—why, good luck to them and let them have it. The last thing we want is to make everywhere else just like our own home. It would not be home unless it were different.
From within such a perspective, we can readily recognize the value of other, different ways of life. For just as we cherish the country God has given us, others may cherish their own country as the one God has given them. National chauvinism will not grow well in such soil.
Though I have sought to defend love of country on the basis of loving one’s own, love of the good surely plays some role in a healthy patriotism as well. This is perhaps best expressed in negative terms: although we do not love our country because it is good, we might have to cease loving it were it to become particularly wicked. Or (perhaps better) if there were still a sense in which we continued to love it even then, we could not, at any rate, act on that love as we might under other circumstances. Love of the good thus sets limits of a sort on love of our own. Similarly, even if we love our country because it is ours, and not for the sake of a goodness it does not possess, we can still strive to make it better, just as parents strive to make their children good without ceasing to love them when they misbehave.
Loving our country because it is good and loving it simply because it is ours are thus both important; ultimately, neither perspective can stand entirely alone. They are not, however, equally in need of defenders. For if our country were ever to become truly good, it would be obvious enough that we should love it; and there is, in our contemporary world—and especially in the academy—no shortage of people hectoring us and insisting, in harsh and accusing tones, that we should certainly not love it until it becomes much better than it is today. We are much less likely to be reminded that we may—and, if my argument is persuasive, should—love it, warts and all, simply because it is ours. Christians, however, should not be afraid to say this. After all, neither my wife, nor my children, nor my friends have achieved perfection any more than my country has, yet no one would criticize me for loving them. They are God’s gifts to me and are to be cherished for that reason. And if their Giver can love me with all my blemishes and imperfections, then surely I can love His gifts in the same spirit. One’s country should be counted among those gifts.
In a sense, then, Rousseau missed the point when he criticized Christianity for giving us “two legislative orders, two rulers, two homelands.” It is true that Christians inhabit this world “like a pilgrim in a foreign land,” longing for that city where we will find our perfect rest. But our loyalties are not thereby divided; they are multiplied. The one who learns to love the great Giver of all life will not suddenly forget how to love His gifts; nor will he who worships the God who is Love find his own capacity for love diminished. In Bonhoeffer’s wonderful image from the passage at the head of this essay, “Where the ground bass is firm and clear, there is nothing to stop the counterpoint from being developed to the utmost of its limits.” Christians, then, are precisely the kind of patriots that a decent polity should want to have. They know that their country has its faults. But they do not imagine that it can earn their love only by becoming faultless. They love their country, not because it is good, but because it is given.
Peter C. Meilaender is Assistant Professor of Political Science at Houghton College in New York State.