First of all, then, I urge that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings be made for all people, for kings and all who are in high positions, that we may lead a peaceful and quiet life, godly and dignified in every way. 1 Timothy 2:1,2
It was 1984 and we were spending the month of July in Santo Domingo in the Dominican Republic, where I was serving as the substitute rector of the English-speaking congregation of the Episcopal Cathedral of the Epiphany. I received a phone call from the American Embassy asking if I would be able to lead the prayers at their July 4th celebration and I happily agreed – even though my current status was that of a Permanent Resident Alien! The service was well attended and conducted with quiet dignity and with patriotic music provided by US Marines. We all felt honored to be able to take part, and somehow being away from the US made us feel even more proud of our American homeland.
Nine years later, in November 1993, Angela and I were granted United States citizenship at a very moving ceremony in Alexandria, Virginia. We had prepared by studying a long list of questions on US government and history. We were joined by another 350 petitioners from 70 countries that went alphabetically from Afghanistan to Vietnam. We found the process thorough and quite moving. I particularly remember how we were all instructed to stand when the flag was processed, and to put our right hand over our heart when we said the Pledge of Allegiance, as a sign of respect for all those who had fought to protect our freedom.
While I recognize that the US is far from perfect and has much in its history from which we must learn, I am proud to be an American – with a British accent! Patriotism has become a contentious topic in recent years. Extreme views are promulgated with divisive ferocity, and as a result some now suggest that patriotism itself should be renounced or at least kept well hidden. I disagree, and I am in good company with a man familiar to most of you – Clive Staples Lewis.1
Patriotism, according to C.S. Lewis, is “love of country.” In Lewis’ The Four Loves, he helps us understand what genuine patriotism is and how it relates to faith.
Lewis volunteered to fight in the First World War, though he had no obligation to, and who volunteered again at age 40 to participate in the Second.
He gave great thought to what constitutes love of country, despite Great Britain’s limitations, inadequacies, and even sins. He begins his conversation about patriotism by defining it as “love of home” and “love of the familiar.” That love of one’s neighborhood, friends, family, and community values can be too parochial, and it is best if it points us to a wider set of obligations and loves: love of one’s country. My love of the familiar and my love of country should make me respect the Frenchman’s love of what is familiar to him and of his country. My patriotism recognizes the valuable patriotism of the Frenchman, the Egyptian, the Brazilian, and others. These can be rightly-ordered loves.
Lewis recognizes that “the actual history of every country is full of shabby and shameful things.” We should not allow ourselves to believe only a fanciful history of our own country’s past, avoiding its warts and its sins. At the same time, however, what is good in that past should be conserved and should be passed down to our children and grandchildren as the good lessons of history. Proper patriotism learns from and is inspired by the past. Proper patriotism asks questions, seeks answers, and avoids both demonizing and idolizing the past.
Indeed, Lewis asks, “Who can condemn what clearly makes many people, at many important moments, behave so much better than they could have done without its help?” Patriotism moves individuals beyond selfishness and conceit to give and to share and to sacrifice, particularly in times of duress and violence. Lewis goes on to say that love of home and one’s people should point us to higher loves and higher duties, beyond “our mere natural impulse.” Thus, for Lewis, the rightly ordered love of patriotism points us to ultimate loves, including love of God.
Lewis warned against negative forms of patriotism, which he described as seeing “Man as God.” Patterson calls this chauvinistic hyper-nationalism—i.e., when the government, the party, or the ideology is idolized and makes ultimate truth claims, thus demanding allegiance in all aspects of life. It is exclusivist and superior: it places itself above all others. The Other is always inferior, subordinate, lesser, and even sub-human. The Nazis and the Communists of the last century were such evil “patriots.”
One final note from Lewis: patriotism is grateful acceptance of where God has placed us. Just as 1 Corinthians tells us that love “seeks the good,” so, too, we are enjoined to seek the good of our neighbors. We are to learn and transmit the lessons of our nation and our heritage to the next generation.
As our own family continues to grow, we take this task seriously, and one way in which we are helped is through the gift of patriotic hymnody. I particularly enjoy “America (My Country, ‘Tis of Thee)” because, while the words of full of vision and hope, it uses the same melody as that of the national anthem of the United Kingdom, “God Save the Queen.” In a delightful reflection on our common history, it was first performed in Boston, not far from that unfortunate Tea Party incident, at the Park Street Church on July 4, 1831. When I sing that hymn, I have sometimes even been known to switch the words – quietly, of course! Your brother in Christ,
To God be the glory,
1I am indebted to Eric Patterson of the Center for Religious Freedom for his reflections on Lewis. I have borrowed liberally from his recent reflections published in his blog on July 2, 2021.