Essay / Culture

Patriotism Firmly Rooted in Mid-Air

One morning last week, as I was driving to the Biola campus to teach a session on Aeschylus’ The Oresteia, I came across two vehicles with two very different sets of bumper stickers. One said “God Bless the World,” and the other, displaying his patriotism for all to see, featured a proud portrayal of the Statue of Liberty, with the words “God Bless America” blazoned over it.

I am like many self-styled American “conservatives” in this regard: I am extremely impatient with bumper stickers and signs that say “God Bless The World.” I know what they’re trying to say: God’s love encompasses the whole world, and we must not presume to think for one moment that God’s providential care is limited to one nation. I reply with a hearty, affirmative “Amen” to this. But I’m afraid there is a more sinister side to this position that these well-meaning folk miss, and miss at their peril. They run the risk of falling victim to an abstract sort of “love for humanity,” a solidarity with the “human race” which, C.S. Lewis reminds us, can easily turn into an excuse not to love anyone at all. Stalin and Pol Pot were “lovers of humanity,” yet had no qualms sending a good number of individuals to their deaths simply because they did not conform to their ideal of “humanity.” This is the temptation that befalls all “lovers of humanity”-a destructive love of an abstraction. Love of country forms the basic and necessary chain of affections which tie a person to a family, a community, and a nation, without which love of the human family is, if not impossible, very, very difficult to attain. How can you love “humanity” without loving particular people? You learn this through the complex web of relationships, beginning with family, extending to one’s community, city, village, etc., to the love of one’s country, and on to the world.

But I must also wonder about the “good American” who plasters his bumper with “God bless America,” the Statue of Liberty prominently displayed bearing the “torch of freedom,” stars and stripes fluttering everywhere. What, in fact, is this fellow’s love and allegiance? Is it to an actual country, with its complex web of communities, history, traditions, local customs, and shared experiences? Or is it to an abstraction? If you ask a typical “patriotic” American why he has a devotion to his country, the usual answer you are likely to get will include the words “liberty,” “freedom,” “rights,” etc. To him, America is an idea, a concept, which encompasses the “ideals” of liberty, freedom and justice for all.

So is it “ideals” to which the typical American patriot locates his devotion? The American patriot’s affections become directed not so much to a place, a community, a nation with history and tradition which mark its own uniqueness, but to a set of abstractions. Do you ever hear any mention of his love for the American people? Do you ever hear him express a love for his city? For his state? Of his neighbors? Does he even know his neighbors?

The modern American notion of patriotism, I’m afraid, is closely akin to that of Imperial Rome’s notion of itself as something more than a city on the banks of the Tiber. This is captured in the concept of Roma Aeterna, Eternal Rome, a reality that exists in the mind of the gods (it was usually figured in coins as a lady seated on a throne, holding the sun and the moon-an emblem of Rome’s mastery over the world). For the typical Roman, Rome meant order, civilization, light, glory, peace, over against the barbaric hordes that hemmed her in, and which she must subdue. There was a sense of mission associated with this, as Romans were to subdue the world around them, bringing the light of Roman civilization to every tribe and people that was benighted by the darkness of barbarity and lack of civitas. This sense of “Roman-ness” is captured by that indefagitable celebrant of the new Augustan order, Virgil, who, in his Aeneid, has the central hero, Aeneas, sojourn through the Underworld in Book Six, where he meets his dead father, Anchises. Up to this point, Aeneas (often called pius-“dutiful”), seems to stumble a great deal, at one point being tempted by the love of Dido to stay in what would eventually become Carthage instead of moving on at the gods’ insistence to build the city of Rome. Anchises shows him a “parade” of endless prominent Romans that would be the lions of his race: Cato, Marcellus, Quirinus, Fabius Maximus, etc., and gives him this charge: “Roman, remember by your strength to rule Earth’s peoples-for your arts are to be these: To pacify, to impose the rule of law, To spare the conquered, battle down the proud” (Virgil, Aeneid, [trans. Robert Fitzgerald] New York: Vintage Classics, 1990 Book VI:1151-1154). Rome is thus defined as an entity whose divine mandate was to bring peace, “impose the rule of law,” thus bringing a settled life among the world’s barbarians.

Freedom, rights, and liberty are great things, but unless they are rooted in natural law, and understood to be mediated through historical and cultural experiences that provide a cohesiveness that binds a people together, then they will forever remain nice ideas that have no relevance to human experience. Edmund Burke’s criticism of the French Revolution was precisely directed at its commitment to liberte, egalite, fraternite, having destroyed its existing constitution-the French monarchy, and its institutions-thus cutting itself off from its own history. The Englishman, Burke countered, knew his rights not on the basis of “abstractions,” but as an “inheritance derived to us from our forefathers, and to be transmitted to our posterity-as an estate specially belonging to the people of this kingdom, without any reference to any other more general or prior right” (Edmund Burke, Reflections on the Revolution in France (Oxford, 1993) p. 33). It is indeed rooted in natural law, but they come to us rooted in historical and institutional developments that are unique to the constitution of our country. Each nation, and culture, must figure out for itself how these principles will best be realized within its own constitution.

A patriotism that is not rooted in culture, history, community, and tradition will forever be condemned to the same sort of empty abstractions into which the “lover of humanity” has consigned himself. The Mexican, being no lover of his government, will nonetheless swell with pride as he yells out Viva Mexico! But it does not end there, for it is quite common that that same fellow will shout out an affectionate shout for his home state: Viva Guanajuato! Viva Michoacan! You get the idea.

I think that Mexican, far from home, is on to something. He feels a swelling pride for his country (as well every person should), but he has also learned (or not forgotten) where he is from specifically. He is from a community, a village, which is part of a larger municipality, which itself is part of a larger state. It is this context which shapes his love for his country: a love formed from the ground up.

You want to love your country? Start by loving your neighbors.

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