Patriotism and Pride: Affirmations of a Grateful American (1)
Michael S. Franch
© 2003, 2007
I sat down to write the original version of this sermon on Veteran’s Day, November 11th, which I still think of as Armistice Day. Going toward my front door that morning to get the newspaper from the porch, I took my flag out of its box in the umbrella stand and when I got outside I put the two sections of the pole together and put the flag in its bracket on one of the porch posts. I generally put the flag out on national holidays. It was this sort of thing that caused a friend of mine to call me a patriot.
I was taken aback. “Patriot” was one of those terms that seemed to be something that I wasn’t. Patriotism had a vaguely right wing connotation to me. I shared Samuel Johnson’s suspicion that “Patriotism is the last refuge of a scoundrel.”
But on reflection, yes, I think I am a patriot. While I resonate to Thomas Paine’s proclamation (in The Rights of Man, 1791) that “My country is the world . . .” I also feel that I am fundamentally an American. I couldn’t see myself moving elsewhere if I didn’t like things here. Of all the places in the world, I care the most about this place. I have immersed myself in its history. I take joy in my active participation in its civic life. I believe, deep down, that we can be a force for great good in the world.
I am a patriot, a lover of my country. So, just as I refuse to abandon the flag to the political right, or concern about the family to the religious right, I claim the term patriot. It is not the exclusive possession of one political or religious viewpoint.
But don’t expect to see a ‘Proud to Be an American’ bumper sticker on my car. These stickers, as well as those proclaiming “The Power of Pride,” that have sprung up since September 11, 2001, deeply disturb me. They seem emblematic of our government’s behavior since that time, which I believe has been characterized by arrogance, dishonesty, and disregard of human rights. These things have moved me to this morning’s reflections, which look at pride, shame, and gratitude. What I am going to say this morning can be summarized thusly:
• I am not proud to be an American. Indeed, I view some current manifestations of pride to be dangerous to our country’s future.
• Sometimes I am ashamed to be an American. Shame, I argue, is essential to patriotism.
• Finally, I am grateful, deeply, deeply grateful that I am an American. That is why I called this sermon an affirmation. Gratitude, with its responsibilities, rather than pride, with its arrogance, is the emotion of patriotism.
So, remember: pride, shame, gratitude.
Let us first consider Pride. The expressions of pride in our country, as the bumper stickers I’ve just mentioned, have become commonplace. We are proud of our military power. We are proud of our economy. We are proud because we (wrongly) believe that we have the best health care system in the world. We seem to feel that just being Americans bestows upon us status and stature and the right to bestride the world with a sense of entitlement. The bumper stickers proclaiming “God Bless America” seem to me less a plea than a statement of fact: God has blessed America.. . And He’d better! Or else!
Our prideful effusions are interesting, considering the depth of our culture’s warnings about pride. Look back almost 2400 years ago when the authors of the book in the Bible that we call Proverbs included many admonitions against pride, including:
• When pride cometh, then cometh shame. XI, 2
• The Lord will destroy the house of the proud. XV, 25
• Pride goeth before destruction, and a haughty spirit before a fall. XVI, 18
Pride is the first of the Seven Deadly Sins. Consider this wonderful petition from the liturgy in the Anglican Book of Common Prayer of 1662:
From pride, vain-glory, and hypocrisy; from envy, hatred, and malice, and all uncharitableness, good Lord deliver us.
Poor pride is in bad company indeed, and the harbinger of worse things to come.
But even in talking about poor, wicked pride, we need to make distinctions. Like cholesterol, not all pride is bad. Let me make a distinction between what we might call “good pride” and “bad pride.”
There are several kinds of bad pride:
There is vicarious pride.
This is inherited pride, pride based on status, derived not by one’s own merit but from others. An example would be the pride of the blue blood, the Mayflower descendent or Daughter of the American Revolution or Son of the Confederacy who claims merit because of what an ancestor has done.
There is the pride of identification with the achievements of others. We frequently see this with collegiate and professional sports teams. Indeed, the “we’re number one” mentality that seems to pervade our power relationships has much in common with our approach to football. I find this “we’re” (as in “we’re number one”) an interesting phenomena. What’s with the “we’re” business? The guys on the field are number one. The fans are simply fans.
This is the pride that leads to arrogance. I believe that this pride and its associated arrogance have led us into our present difficulties in Iraq and in much of the rest of the world.
But there is also a good pride. We don’t generally condemn a person who takes pride in a job well done. We might tell someone who has done something we admire, “You have a right to be proud of that.”
We are less censorious of the pride of achievement. You’ve done something great, you have a right to be proud of it. A friend or family member has done something notable. You have a right to be proud of them.
Example: I’m proud of my father’s good name in the old hometown. He earned it. I would have benefited from it if I had made my life there. But I would have had no right to walk proudly because of a status that he had earned. Indeed, I would have been challenged to earn it on my own.
Thus, I can’t take pride in my status as a United States citizen. I had nothing to do with the achieving of that status. My grandparents could take pride. They earned it—active voice. I became a citizen by being born—passive voice. As I’ll argue in a moment, the appropriate response to such a great gift is humility.
The key: we can be proud of some great thing that our American ancestors have done. We justifiably take pride in that heritage. But our job is in the here and now, to move that heritage forward, because, we have it in our power to besmirch their achievements. To use another sports metaphor, each generation has it’s own “at bats.”
We can be proud of our skill, of the product of our skill—but not become haughty, arrogant—in short, prideful—of ourselves for our skill.
So a patriot should be careful of pride. It should be indulged in sparingly and for circumscribed occasions. It is not nearly so useful to the patriot as is shame.
Let’s talk about shame. I can say that I feel shame at some of the things that this nation has done and is doing. Being able to feel shame is patriotic, I believe, because you can’t be ashamed of something for which you feel no connection. It is a sign of your identification, of claiming your American-ness. If we love our country, we must be able to feel shame for it. Not to feel shame is to have an incomplete relationship with our nation, its past, and its future.
We are not unique as a nation that has done horrible things. The Germans bear a huge burden and still struggle with how to deal with it. Even little Belgium, which we think of as a victim country of two world wars, unleashed a holocaust on the Congo in the early years of the last century of titanic proportions. I don’t know if Belgians struggle with any burden from their Congo experience. They certainly ought to. We seem to have avoided the shame of our Vietnam War experience by forgetting about the Vietnamese.
The deeds of the past, though shameful, are not necessarily my shame. There were things that happened in the past which were shameful but for which I do not feel shame. I did not do these things and could not prevent them from happening. I did not enslave Africans or slaughter Indians.
But it would be shameful for me not to acknowledge this history, shameful not to acknowledge that it was shameful, even if it were the norm of the time.
And it would be shameful for me not to acknowledge that this shameful history is part of my own story. One of the (possibly) unique things about being an American is that the newcomer inherits all this, the pride and the shame, just as the Ark and Dove and Mayflower people do. It is like buying the assets and liabilities of a company—you take over the buildings and the products but also the money it owes its creditors. You become an American and you become part of the story, even the part of the story that happened before you got here. You can be part of two stories simultaneously. So part of my story happened in Eastern European Jewish villages, while at the same time things were going on in North America that would one day be part of the story of the grandson of people born in the land of the czar.
What this means is that I can’t say that I bear none of the moral burden slavery or of the dispossession of the Indians, because slavery and genocide is part of the history of my country. I have benefited in many ways from the evils of racism.
And, needless to say, I bear my full share of shame for the shameful acts that we do today. To use the old naval term, made popular by Jimmy Carter during the Iran crisis, what happens now happens on my watch.
This is a strange patriot, you might be thinking. I’ve stated that I don’t take pride in my status of American. I’ve stated that we had shameful episodes in our past, and that I am ashamed of many things we do today. So let us turn to gratitude.
Let me state unequivocally and proclaim for all to hear that I am profoundly grateful to be an American. I have had opportunities to lead an enhancing and comfortable life, to seek my own religious path, to contribute to the larger good. I have lived in a pluralistic society which a rich associational life. Because my grandparents came here they and their offspring did not perish in the Holocaust. This last statement would apply if they went to Australia, Brazil, or South Africa (as some of my family did), but they came here.
Like grace in some theologies, American citizenship came upon me unmerited, unearned, as an almost arbitrary gift. This accident of history makes me an heir to a great heritage. If anything, it should make me humble, not proud. I rejoice in my heritage, but also must recognize that this inheritance bring with it burdens, responsibilities. It is an estate that requires constant cultivating.
If I prayed, I would offer a prayer of thanksgiving that I have become part of the story of this country. How can I express that gratitude, a feeling that Cicero called “not only the greatest of virtues, but the parent of all the others.”
One answer is through active citizenship. A few years ago, the Baltimore Sun carried an article about elderly antiwar demonstrators at Roland Park Place, a Baltimore retirement community. It quoted Dr. Walter Ehrlich, age 88, a European-born veteran of the Second World War: “’[The] Germans couldn’t protest . .. . . Here, if I don’t agree with what the president does, I must show it. You have to fight to defend your country.’” (2)
Yes! When wrong, a patriot fights to set the country on the right course. The patriot is concerned about the rightness or wrongness of his or her country’s actions, and seeks to support the right and correct the wrong.
I believe that our country is frequently wrong. I believe that it has done and still does shameful things, for which I as a citizen ought to be and am ashamed. But it is my country, and I care about the wrongs that it commits in a way that is different from the way I care about the wrongs other nations commit. I am responsible for the wrongs of my own household, and this is my home. We care most about the misdeeds of those we love.
I’m not sure exactly what Stephen Decatur meant when we offered his famous toast in 1816, “Our country: in her intercourse with foreign nations may she always be in the right; but our country, right or wrong!” Perhaps he had a more nuanced meaning than the truculent toast seems to imply.
But Carl Schurz was clear, when he declared on the floor of the U.S. Senate in 1872, “Our country, right or wrong. When right, to be kept right; when wrong, to be put right.”
That is patriotism. Although we might from time to time be ashamed of what our country does, let us live so that we can be proud of our own actions in seeking to put it in the right. That is true pride, true patriotism.
1. Originally given before the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Greater Cumberland (Md.) in November 2003 and later to the Baltimore and Philadelphia Ethical Societies in March 2006.
2. Jamie Stiehm, “Dedicated to the cause,” The Sun (Baltimore), 15 Nov 03, pp 1, 4.