Patriotism and the American Creed
Last week I mentioned patriotism as one of three things (the others being religion and love of family) to which a person of conservative temperament naturally inclines. Thinking about the different senses which many people may give to the word “patriotism,” I thought I ought to say a bit more about it, especially as I had recently run across what was to me a surprising, and to my mind erroneous, definition of it.
On reflection I think this definition is probably shared by a lot of people, and if that’s true it might explain some misunderstandings. It came from a moderately well-known conservative writer whom I won’t name, because I haven’t been able to find the remarks again (I think they were made in passing, where the main topic was something else) and I don’t want to take the chance of misrepresenting him.
At any rate, if I understood him correctly, his view is that allegiance to the governing principles of a nation is the primary component of patriotism. He seemed to be saying that one could be an American patriot anywhere in the world by professing American principles. This was not just surprising but startling to me. It really shouldn’t have been—didn’t Chesterton say many years ago that America is a nation founded on a creed, and having the soul of a church? Still, patriotism is not the name I give to that creed.
If I were to leave my wife and live with another woman, I don’t think anyone would consider me a good husband because I continued to speak of my wife in the most admiring terms. I could not claim devotion to the abstract principle of my wife as the equivalent of living with her. Similarly, if I were to move to New Zealand—move there simply because I thought it would be a better place to live, not because of some external necessity—I might still fervently profess American political principles: representative government, the rule of law, ordered liberty. But I wouldn’t call myself an American patriot.
My own sense of the word “patriotism” is that it refers primarily, and almost exclusively, to love of one’s native country, with “country” being a somewhat loose term, not necessarily the same as “nation,” but definitely referring to a place. I have a fair amount of patriotic emotion for the United States, but more for the South as a region, more still for Alabama, more still for extreme northern and extreme southern Alabama, most of all for the obscure crossroads in the Tennessee Valley where I grew up and the small town on Mobile Bay where I now live. I have a deep affection for these places not because I believe them to be objectively superior to all others but because they are my home.
I wonder if my kind of patriotism even has a place at the political table anymore. Both the right and the left seem to equate the word with a sort of ideological Americanism—it’s just that the former is for it and the latter against it. If I stop for a moment and try to think of an American conservative who is identified with a particular place or region, I can’t come up with any. The left professes a sort of theoretical admiration for what is local and unhomogenized, but doesn’t think very highly of the actual incarnations of this abstraction, as is testified by the fury and contempt directed after the last election toward most of the people who actually constitute the so-called “Red States.” Wendell Berry is an obvious example of a contemporary commenter on political affairs who is deeply rooted in a specific place, but views such as his are not much in evidence in our political life at large, and neither the right nor the left quite knows what to do with him. To tell the truth, I sometimes wonder whether more than a few Americans even have a home, properly speaking, anymore.
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