Vacation brought us this year to Washington, D.C. We went monument hunting in the dark. One can visit a lot of national monuments after hours: no crowds, no tourist trams, no hawkers, plus I could try my hand at night photography (hope you don’t mind if I show a couple results, dedicated to Lincoln and King).
Take care where you park your automobile, however. We returned to our vehicle some while after midnight and found the short street bracketed at both ends by police cars. Ours was the only car left on the block, a van. The police were leaving as we arrived. No one asked us any questions but one of the police cars did turn around as we pulled out and followed us, sometimes parallel to us, for many blocks until we were clearly leaving for Virginia. This suggests to me that Missouri license plates are inherently suspicious.
I’ve never been one for visiting monuments, but I go along; it’s a family thing, and I enjoy it for that. I’d never visited the Washington Monument even once while living in D.C., or any of the other monuments, until returning years later as a tourist.
I’m just not a patriot who enjoys monuments. Funny thing, monuments or not, I can never quite figure out what sort of patriot I am. I can’t quite get a handle on it.
I’m trying to figure out this Fourth of July how to speak of patriotism without endorsing jingoism, remembering especially that the word itself is a minced version of “by Jesus,” as in “My country, by jingo.”
Nor would I care to be stuck with an intellectual hatred of nation, viewing America as a land of human desiccation.
So if I can’t do “by jingo” or echo President Obama’s former pastor’s “God damn America,” I’m off in the middle, somewhere. My patriotism ends up being defined by what I am not.
For starters, I fly neither the American flag nor the Confederate off the back of a pick-up truck. Nor do I appreciate the sentiment of the late Gore Vidal, “The USA is the most corrupt political system on the earth.”
What I find missing in both down-home patriotism and the anti-Americanism of snotty elites is any real awareness that history frequently is awkward as it is occurring, and often ambiguous if not entirely problematic in its outcome.
Yet history being history, it is what is, not what it might have been. We Americans must deal with an often chastening past. I think we try to do that and largely in ways that we hope will inform our future.
That sort of historical attentiveness stops me from using our national past to either flail or lavish uncritical praise on all things American. There are numerous people who think it must be exactly one or the other. Richard Neuhaus once remarked that, “On balance, and considering the alternatives, the United States has been a force for good in the world.”
That is a well-fenced statement, enclosed by two tough caveats, “on balance” and “considering the alternatives.” It should have kept him out of trouble. It didn’t. Some reactions, he commented, saw America as directly opposite of any good as a world influence; others objected to the caveats. Though looking at history straight on, acknowledging our failures while arguing for our future, I think Neuhaus had it right—on balance, other alternatives duly considered.
During his inaugural journey to Washington in 1861 Abraham Lincoln delivered a brief speech before the New Jersey state senate. He referred to America as the Almighty’s “almost chosen people.” Much has been made of that remark, but on the whole I believe he saw transcendent purpose in America’s existence, “a great struggle” to extend law and liberty. The “almost” captured the raw, tentative, even uncertain character of America’s democracy.
From his Birmingham jail cell Martin Luther King, Jr., wrote of the “sacred heritage of our nation” joined to the “eternal will of God” embodied in the claims of the civil rights movement.
Neither man dodged history; their patriotism was always the chastened sort. Yet they found in the past a national path unfolding for America in ways as yet unknown, but, as Lincoln put it, it was always “something that held out a great promise to all the people of the world to all time to come.”
For both Lincoln and King, America is a nation ever becoming its promise. I like to hope I am their sort of patriot.
Russell E. Saltzman is dean of the Great Plains Mission District of the North American Lutheran Church, assistant pastor of St. Matthew’s Church in Riverside, Missouri, and an online homilist for the Christian Leadership Center at the University of Mary. His book Speaking of the Dead is nearing completion. His previous “On the Square” articles can be found here.