Dr. Jonathan Best teaches theology courses and operates his own editing company (Best Academic Editing). In the following essay, Best provides a measured and nuanced discussion of the parameters and meaning of patriotism in connection to the Church and American politics, both past and present. He draws on rich sources including John Dewey, Richard Rorty, Martin Luther King, Jr., and former President Barack Obama. You can read more of his writings on his blog, Liminal Theology. Dr. Best’s full bio is below.
Like every other country, ours has a lot to be proud of and a lot to be ashamed of. But a nation cannot reform itself unless it takes pride in itself – unless it has an identity, rejoices in it, reflects upon it and tries to live up to it. Such pride sometimes takes the form of arrogant, bellicose nationalism. But it often takes the form of a yearning to live up to the nation’s professed ideals. [i]
Nowadays, there is perhaps no term as loaded with controversy and confusion as patriotism. Indeed, the mere mention of the word stirs a host of conflicting opinions as to what it means to be patriotic. What are the proper actions and behaviors of patriotism? Who can or cannot be patriotic? Moreover, and perhaps more importantly, there is the question of the very idea of patriotism—particularly so for contemporary Christianity. Living in a worrying age of rising nationalism and border walls, many progressive Christians are left wondering: Is it okay to be patriotic?
Since Vietnam, the idea of patriotism has carried with it a particularly muddy history. Failed wars, questionable foreign policy decisions, economic uncertainty, and continued domestic unrest seemed to wear down the bright, unbridled, and unambiguous patriotic spirit of the pre- and immediate post-World War II era. In truth, American failures were a plenty prior to the Second World War. Yet, despite these failures, there remained some optimism that the professed ideals of the United States more than made up for these failures. One could trust in the long-term social project that we commonly describe as the "American dream." It's that same spirit of optimism that spurred the American philosopher John Dewey (1859-1952) to write, "Government, business, art, religion, all social institutions have a meaning, a purpose. That purpose is to set free and to develop the capacities of human individuals without respect to race, sex, class or economic status" [iii]. Reflecting the spirit of that age, Dewey's admiration and trust in the democratic process, describing it as the "supreme test of all political institutions," is rare to see among the philosophers and thinkers of our time. In fact, it's hard (and getting harder) to garner any positive feelings about our current social and political institutions.
Today, it's hard to recapture this spirit of optimism, the trust we once placed in our political institutions. In many respects, the American project is suffering a crisis of confidence. Thus, it's almost a truism to state that the confidence we had in our political institutions to "do the right thing" has been severely eroded. They've failed the "supreme test" that Dewey alluded to. As a result, we're far more likely to expect these institutions to fail than succeed. As expected, such an attitude has long lasting consequences: apathy (why bother?) and nationalism (longing for the so-called "glory days"). Consequently, patriotism is either embraced or rejected, thus abandoning the term to the realm of radicalization ("Make America Great Again"). Patriotism suffers between the two poles of indifference and ultimacy. As such, it's now a fraught term having no real ground beyond the most extreme of attitudes and ideologies.
Nearly twenty-five years ago, the preeminent pragmatic philosopher Richard Rorty (1931-2007) sought to recapture the spirit of patriotism. In his 1994 New York Times piece, "The Unpatriotic Academy," Rorty suggests that the major problem facing the political left isn't ideology, but patriotism. The left simply isn't patriotic, consequently it "refuses to rejoice in the country it inhabits. It repudiates the idea of a national identity, and the emotion of national pride" [iv]. For Rorty, patriotism isn't about some uncritical acceptance of nationalism or a refutation of globalism; rather it's the desire to live up to the founding ideals and vision of the nation—perhaps not as they are but as they could be. Thus, patriotism is our commitment to improve, expand, and implement the egalitarian vision of America. Patriotism is the choice to take pride in the national vision, to identify with it, and even rejoice in the unbounded possibilities such a vision represents.
Rorty suggests that the worst mistake we can make is to reject our identity, our patriotism as Americans. For Rorty, the left had already made this mistake. That is in expanding—and rightly so—our idea of multiculturalism, the left failed to graft this vision into the American one. Instead, the left rejected the American vision and identity, choosing instead to keep these identities separate. Fear of a national identity contributes to a vacuum of identity, and without such a collective identity we're unable to institute the social, economic, and political change our nation so desperately needs. Identity motivates our social responsibility and contributes to our collective shame—the shame associated with our failure to live up to the national ideals and visions we profess. Rorty writes,
There is no contradiction between such identification and shame at the greed, the intolerance and the indifference to suffering that is widespread in the United States. On the contrary, you can feel shame over your country’s behaviour only to the extent to which you feel it is your country. If we fail in such identification, we fail in national hope. If we fail in national hope, we shall no longer even try to change our ways. [v]
As progressives, we must not reject patriotism. Such a rejection is tantamount to an abandonment of the term to others who might not share our vision of a multicultural and open America. Indeed, to reject patriotism allows others to fill this void with visions of racism, sexism, violence, and hate. It leaves patriotism in the hands of those who would twist the American vision into one of xenophobia and isolationism. Those who are unwilling to offer the critique and challenge that patriotism requires, for patriotism without critique is dangerous and prone to the scourge of nationalism. Thus, what is required of us is a willingness to move our vision forward, courage to combat the narratives of hate, and the ability to admit when we are wrong. Such are the values that define true patriotism. It's this pragmatic spirit, which President Obama so masterfully demonstrated at the 50th Anniversary of the Selma to Montgomery Marches,
What greater form of patriotism is there than the belief that America is not yet finished, that we are strong enough to be self-critical, that each successive generation can look upon our imperfections and decide that it is in our power to remake this nation to more closely align with our highest ideals? [vi]
The true sense of patriotism challenges the nation to live up to the values it claims to hold. It implies that you care, not just about the nation, but more importantly about the people living in that nation—your neighbors. Consequently, it's an activity we share with one another. To be patriotic is to be patriotic for one another. Thus, the right kind of patriotism begins with "do unto others." However, doing so requires us to perform two duties: the obligation to critique and the willingness to hope.
As progressive Christians, we would do well to take the words of Rorty and Obama to heart. We must be strong enough to take criticism, mature enough to handle shame, and wise enough to learn from past mistakes. We must find that balance between cynicism and nationalism. We need the careful, thoughtful, and action-oriented nature of what I'm calling in-between patriotism. This is the type of patriotism that can embrace protest without slipping into nihilistic despair. In-between patriotism finds no contradiction between being both proud and ashamed. Motivated by both hopefulness and vigilance, in-between patriotism holds both extremes in constant tension. Standing in-between is impossible for the individual alone. Eventually, we'll be pulled to one side or the other: unbridled nationalism or nihilism. Holding ourselves within this tension requires the church—the community of faith. For the progressive Christian, the church is our greatest ally.
The church helps us as progressive Christians to remain, as King describes it, both “tough minded and tender hearted.” The work of the Christian necessitates that we continually live in this tension between strength and gentleness. King describes these two poles as a balance between "firmness" and "compassion." It's the ability to speak against injustice without becoming hateful. King writes,
Jesus reminds us that the good life combines the toughness of the serpent and the tenderness of the dove. To have serpentlike qualities devoid of dovelike qualities is to be passionless, mean, and selfish. To have dovelike without serpentlike qualities is to be sentimental, anemic, and aimless. We must combine strongly marked antitheses. [vii]
In-between patriotism is the recognition that it's our responsibility to be leaders for change, but we must care enough about our nation, about one another, to make that change. And yet doing so means we must also find that balance between anger and apathy. Progressive change requires patriotism, but it must be tempered with the balanced attitude of a tough mind and a tender heart. How do we do this? Admittedly, this seems incredibly difficult. But as I mentioned earlier, I believe that the church, our community of faith, offers us a distinct advantage. The church reminds us that this isn't a task suited to one of us or even some of us. Progressive change requires all of us, the entire body, to institute the type of patriotism that will renew and reaffirm the openness, multiculturalism, and equality that we believe America represents. The church is our reminder of the collectivism and communalism required to work toward that American ideal. And while much of the American church has been lost to Trumpism, especially among evangelicals, I hold onto the hope that there's still enough socially progressive Christians to do the work King suggests in "Paul's Letter to American Christians." He writes,
You must be willing to challenge unjust mores, to champion unpopular causes, and to buck the status quo. You are called to be the salt of the earth. You are to be the light of the world. You are to be that vitally active leaven in the lump of the nation [viii]
In King, Rorty saw an individual with the ability to hold that tension between national identity and national shame. King was someone who "every American can be proud of" [ix]. As progressives, we shouldn't seek to do away with patriotism, but re-appropriate it within the tension that Rorty advocated and King embodied. In-between patriotism holds that tension in conjunction with the church. And in doing so, I believe we stand a better chance of resisting and combating the rising tide of nationalism growing within our own nation.
[i] Richard Rorty, Philosophy and Social Hope, Kindle Edition (Penguin Books, 1999), 253.
[ii] Rorty, Philosophy and Social Hope, 254.
[iii] John Dewey, Reconstruction in Philosophy, Kindle Edition (Henry Holt and Company, 1920), 72.
[iv] Rorty, Philosophy and Social Hope, 252.
[v] Rorty, Philosophy and Social Hope, 254.
[vi] The White House, "Remarks by the President at the 50th Anniversary of the Selma to Montgomery Marches," March 7, 2015, https://obamawhitehouse.archives.gov/the-press-office/2015/03/07/remarks-president-50th-anniversary-selma-montgomery-marches.
[vii] Martin Luther King, Jr., Strength to Love (Fortress Press, 2010), 6.
[viii] King, Strength to Love, 147.
[ix] Rorty, Philosophy and Social Hope, 253.
Jonathan L. Best holds a PhD in Practical Theology from St. Thomas University in Miami, FL. A North Carolina native, Jonathan attended both Campbell University and the University of Mount Olive. Previously he served as the Assistant Director of Public Services at the St. Thomas University Library. Currently, Jonathan teaches online courses in theology and operates his own editing company (Best Academic Editing). His areas of research include postmodern and continental philosophy, hermeneutics, pragmatism, and social justice. Jonathan explores theological and philosophical issues related to uncertainty, transition, and being in-between on his blog Liminal Theology (liminaltheology.wordpress.com). He now lives in Deltona, FL with his wife, Rebekah, and his daughter Ava.