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Americans have always been an intensely patriotic people. Most of them love their country without reserve and without need for reflection. Devotion to the nation and its symbols is a cultural given, one that politicians ignore at risk of prompt return to private life. Our national parties stage a quadrennial competition as to which of them can crowd the most flags onto the platforms from which their spokesmen outbid one another in expressions of patriotic enthusiasm.

This apparent consensus, however, hides subtle differences. Americans are almost all patriots, but, as common observation suggests and empirical evidence confirms, Republicans are more comfortable than Democrats in saying so. This puts the latter at a disadvantage in the public mind, a problem reflected in the recurring complaint among Democrats that Republicans are impugning their loyalty. (That complaint seldom arises the other way around.)

The political situation, in turn, reflects ideological predispositions. Conservatives are more easily inclined to unqualified affirmation of country than are liberals, who fear that patriotism unchecked by moral considerations can indeed be the refuge of scoundrels that Dr. Johnson warned against. Liberals are more cosmopolitan in their instinctive loyalties. Not many Americans are likely to declare themselves “citizens of the world,” but the few who do are almost exclusively on the left.

American liberals have not always been as suspicious of patriotism as they seem to be today. The rise of spread-eagle American nationalism is generally associated with the expansionist impulse of the 1840s that insisted it was the nation’s “manifest destiny” to extend its democratic and civilizing reach across the entire continent. Manifest Destiny was, by and large, a Democratic cause, and it was mostly conservative Whigs who worried about its jingoistic tendencies.

Indeed, American liberalism has through most of its history clung to an unshakable faith in the rectitude of the American people and thus to a confidence that the nation could always be trusted to do the right thing in the end. The Populist, Progressive, and New Deal expressions of liberalism differed in many ways, but they all agreed that the nation’s problems arose from the wrong people having got control of things. Those wrong people were never the real people. They were instead special interests or the agents of special interests, and it was assumed that once reformers revealed the usurpers’ identity the authentic people would rise up to remove them from power and reclaim possession of the nation’s destiny. America was safe for patriotism because its common people—the yeoman farmers, urban workers, and ordinary members of its amorphous middle class—would always recover from momentary political error or economic folly and return to the path of national virtue.

All that changed in the 1960s, when the American left came undone with the rise of New Left radicals and New Politics liberals. For the first time in history, a significant part of the left turned its guns away from its traditional enemies on the right—the economic plutocrats and political reactionaries—and trained them instead on the liberal establishment. Liberal intellectuals dismissed Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society achievements as insufficient in themselves—they somehow didn’t get to the undefined but radically urgent heart of things—and as mere extensions of a tired New Deal tradition that had presumably played itself out.

And those achievements didn’t, of course, pay appropriate heed to the overriding contemporary disasters in which establishment liberalism was deeply complicit: an indefensible war in Vietnam and an inadequately addressed civil rights revolution at home. (The intellectual left dismissed the landmark civil rights bills of 1964 and 1965 as well-meaning but unmeaning: sadly feeble responses to the desperate necessities of the moment.)

For critics on the left, the crises over Vietnam and civil rights represented more than failures in policy and more, finally, than malfeasance on the part of the liberal establishment. They were failures of moral imagination and will, and they signified a previously undetected corruption in the soul of middle America. Liberals who had always before assumed the political and moral resiliency of the American people lost faith in the redemptive possibilities of political reform. Was it not those on whom reform had always most fundamentally depended—the members of the expansive working class—who were now most likely to disrupt antiwar protests and least likely to welcome minorities into their neighborhoods and workplaces? John Steinbeck’s heroic Tom Joad had turned out—or so it seemed—to be Norman Lear’s buffoonish Archie Bunker.

So it was that, amid loose talk of revolution and ominous references to Amerika, a not inconsiderable element of the American left fell away, at least for a season, from its presumption of patriotism. The people, as traditionally imagined, could not be trusted, and the nation that they so predominantly constituted had fallen from political grace.

The fevers of the sixties have mostly subsided, and they are now the stuff of textbooks and memories that hover uncertainly between pained embarrassment and nostalgic longing. But if liberals today wonder at how often and confidently they once marched and don’t like to be reminded of their rhetorical excesses, they retain a suspicion of the uncritical patriotism they learned to mistrust. (The reference here is to liberal intellectuals; liberal politicians, for reasons of self-preservation, swallow their irritation and their aesthetic reservations and insert flag pins in their lapels. Witness Barack Obama.)

Liberal academics distinguish, according to one recent comparative study of the subject, between “blind” and “constructive” forms of patriotism. The former implies “rigid and inflexible” attachment to the nation, while the latter suggests a “critical” loyalty in which approval of one’s country depends on its adherence to such “humanistic values” as rejection of automatic acquiescence to state authority, acceptance of negative emotions toward the nation, and the presence both of comprehensive democratic practices and an advanced system of social welfare. The terminology varies—some scholars pit nationalism (bad) against patriotism (good)—but the scheme of evaluation remains the same: The nation can be thought well of so long as it expects only qualified attachment and maintains a social-democratic form of governance.

Conservatives may well quarrel with the notion that only social-democratic regimes are worthy of patriotic support—which in practice would seem to suggest that America must become more like Europe in order to qualify—but they should not reject the more general idea that a legitimate patriotism must indeed be a qualified patriotism. The conditions under which a conscientious citizen should rethink his default-mode assumption of patriotic affirmation may be rare and not easily specified, but they do exist.

It is often assumed that conservative Christians are particularly susceptible to uncritical patriotism. The poet E. E. Cummings classically reflected that assumption in his satirical (and, as was his habit, entirely lowercase) invocation of a politician in full bloviational mood: “next to of course god america i love you.” For not a few on the left, Cummings captured an enduring conservative habit of mind.

There’s empirical basis for that view, but, on reflection, it is not at all necessarily the case that it should be so. For Christians of an Augustinian persuasion, it is finally only the city of God to which they owe unqualified allegiance, and they understand, or ought to understand, that on earth we have no abiding city. In the orthodox Christian view of things, all our cities—even the best of them—are greater or lesser Babylons in which we sojourn as strangers and pilgrims. We are alien residents, on the journey to our ultimate citizenship in the New Jerusalem.

This is not to suggest that Christians must be estranged from their own countries. But they do understand that neither politics nor patriotism is of ultimate concern. These things may engage us deeply, but our understanding of human sin and finitude—especially as manifested in collective behavior—serves to inoculate us against the utopian and salvific temptations that lie behind nationalist enormities. The very best of political arrangements, those calling for our deepest attachment, can bring only a very rough justice. That is not nothing, but neither is it worthy of total or unqualified commitment.

All this may sound, in tone if not in substance, vaguely un-American, and so, by extension, somewhat unpatriotic. But in fact it is just that off-center angle of vision that makes orthodox Christians safe for patriotism. They can love America—feel for it that gratitude, pride, and affection that it is natural for people to extend to their homeland—without being tempted to the idolatrous nationalism that has deformed so much of modern history. How can Augustinian Christians make an idol of a nation whose philosophical assumptions of enlightenment liberalism, recurring religious impulses to gnostic antinomianism, and prevailing spirit of romantic optimism stand athwart their most basic understandings? Because Christians are in a deep sense strangers in America, they can be safely at home there.

And, so long as they keep their ultimate reservations always in mind, they can be quite thoroughly at home and quite at ease in saying so. When Americans speak of the United States as a redeemer nation, or refer to it as a city on a hill, or argue that the Constitution is the nation’s bible, they are not—at least not most of them most of the time—speaking literally. They use providential and biblical language because it is for them a common idiom, not because they really think that America is the new Israel. Not every reference to God’s providence extending to America’s role in the world is an exercise in idolatry, and the declaration in the Pledge of Allegiance that we are a nation “under God” is properly understood as a plea of humility rather than an assertion of pride.

Patriotism implies pride, of course, and there’s nothing wrong with that as long as it’s kept in its proper place. Claims to American exceptionalism fall in that permissible category. America is unlike Europe, as Europeans and Americans alike have been noticing and remarking on for a very long time. And if Americans believe that the unlikeness works, all in all, in their favor and that America really is a special place, that is hardly call for moral panic. Understood in context and with a leavening sense of irony, there’s something to be said for affirming, even in capital letters, that “Next to of course God America I love you.”

James Nuechterlein is editor of First Things

Image by Vít Luštinec, Wikipedia, licensed via Creative Commons. Image cropped.

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