Re-Imagining Patriotism

By Christian Piatt 7-05-2013
Flag-painted hands in the shape of a heart, nito /
Flag-painted hands in the shape of a heart, nito /

I was five years old on Independence Day in 1976. The United States' bicentennial fever had overtaken the entire population. Everything was dressed in red, white, and blue. I remember decorating my tricycle in streamers and balloons for the neighborhood parade. It rained through the entire event, and although I crossed the finish line covered in red and blue dye, my award for "most colorful float" made it all worth it.

Also attended Willie Nelson's Fourth of July birthday party/concert that same year. We camped out under the stars and enjoyed music for days in a Woodstock-like environment. I remember seeing my first naked adult woman there. She and her family – or some group of friends – were taking a break to bathe in the nearby river. Hey, it was the 70s, remember?

But even there in that hotbed of post-hippie activity, everyone displayed affection for our country. Even those who likely had stood in protest against the Vietnam War only years before rose and placed their hands over their hearts when the national anthem was sung and the flag was unfurled every morning.

Somewhere along the way, the idea seeped into our national consciousness that patriotism and political criticism could no longer coexist. Those who questioned or challenged the agendas or motives of those in power were pegged as patently unpatriotic; in turn, those dissident voices increasingly rejected the commonly embraced symbols of patriotism as mere tokens of jingoist American exceptionalism.

Perhaps it was in part due to our growing cynicism as we became increasingly aware of the less-than-savory machinations of American politics. From Watergate forward, our eyes have been irreversibly opened, and although information can serve to empower the public, it also can throw fuel on the fires of cynicism.

And this cynicism comes from both sides of the aisle, mind you. Every presidential election cycle, we hear threats from one constituency or another to move to Canada or some other country if their chosen candidate loses. This rigid, myopic, "my way or the highway" mentality ignores the pluralistic reality that, in many ways, makes our nation so great.

So our growing cynicism about the political process, combined with a win-at-all-costs ethos, has caused us to lose sight of the fact that our country was founded upon the principles of the coexistence of widely differing opinions and the public criticism of those figures and expressions of power to which we object.

Theodore Roosevelt once said, “To announce that there must be no criticism of the president, or that we are to stand by the president, right or wrong, is not only unpatriotic and servile, but is morally treasonable to the American public."

Author and notable social critic James Baldwin echoed this sentiment when he said, "I love America more than any other country in the world, and, exactly for this reason, I insist on the right to criticize her perpetually."

Baldwin understood his right as an American patriot to be one of discerning critic to help hold the systems of power, and those to whom those systems were entrusted, accountable. Roosevelt's statement goes even a step further, suggesting that, when we label our neighbor as acting outside the boundaries of patriotism for criticizing their government, we are engaging in a form of treason.

So where do we go from here? It is my hope that both left and right can hold these two quotes intention when engaging the "other" on matters of national importance. Though we may disagree fiercely with our opponents, we need them as much as they need us in order to ensure that we continue to promote a pluralistic representative democracy.

And in our critiques, we ought to do so while also embracing with pride and a sense of responsibility the moniker of "American citizen."

Although the symbols of our great nation have endured, our understanding of what they represent and our relationship with them continue to evolve. I will confess my own resistance to certain patriotic expressions in the public square, but my four-year-old daughter, Zoe, offered me a healthy reminder of what such aversion can cost us.

"Daddy," she said, "do you see what I drew?" She held up a preschool version of the American flag, scrawled in crayon across a white sheet of paper.

"That's beautiful work," I said. "We should be proud of that."

"But dad," she said, "this isn’t just a picture. This is an important symbol. It reminds us that we live in the United States of America. And it reminds us to love our country and to love each other no matter what."

Christian Piatt is a Sojourners Featured Writer and an author, editor, speaker, musician, and spoken word artist. He is director of church growth and development at First Christian Church in Portland, Ore. Christian is the creator and editor of Banned Questions About The Bible and Banned Questions About Jesus. His new memoir on faith, family and parenting is called PREGMANCY: A Dad, a Little Dude and a Due Date.

Image: Flag-painted hands in the shape of a heart, nito /

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