This Independence Day, let’s save the word “patriotism” from people who ply it for political purposes.
It’s time for U.S. Christians to launch a revolution to restore the true meaning of patriotism—and then live out that definition for the good of the country.
For generations, Americans thought of a patriot as someone who placed country ahead of self. A patriot was a soldier who risked life for the liberty of others. Or a public servant who toiled tirelessly so other citizens could reap the benefits of democracy. Or people in myriad occupations who spent their careers making decisions based on the best interests of others, not what they would get out of it.
Now, when we hear “patriot” in any context other than professional football, it unfortunately conveys political connotations. A “patriot” now means someone who claims to love America more than others do, while also denigrating every other American who does not think like he or she does. It’s someone who pretends to love the Constitution while undermining constitutional guarantees for people who are “different.”
Turning “patriot” upside-down
“Patriot” now is used to imply the speaker is better or “more American” than others who look, sound, worship or think differently.
So, ironically, many Americans who claim the title today would draw the ire, if not outright condemnation, of the nation’s Founders, the original patriots.
Through the clear hindsight of history, we see their flaws. They established a country where one person could own another person. They did not allow half the population the right to vote. They contended viciously with one another. And yet they believed in country ahead of self. They believed in the absolute right to freedom. And they established the constitutional provisions that enabled their young country eventually to carry freedom beyond the horizon of their own vision—so that African Americans could enjoy all the rights and privileges of freedom; so that women could vote and hold public office alongside men.
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For generations, the idea of patriotism has ennobled the essential American character. For patriotism, Americans:
• Sacrificed their lives.
• Voted against self-interest in order to lift others up.
• Gladly paid taxes to benefit people across this land and beyond the sea, investments never directly returned.
• Defended the right of others to speak ideas they deplored.
• Applauded the success of others, even during their own lean times.
More recently, the words “patriot” and “patriotism” have turned common meaning on its head and undermined individual freedom and the greater good. Claiming patriotism, people have:
• Denied the essential role of government to serve all people and called it the enemy.
• Placed themselves and people who look and think like them ahead of others.
• Curtailed historic constitutional freedoms to people who believe differently.
• Justified unjust systems—commercial, judicial and political—that provide advantage to their tribe while punishing all others.
• Lied and undermined truth, upending civil discourse and preventing others from finding middle ground from which to alleviate problems and better the country.
Time to revolt
It’s time for Christians of goodwill to stage a revolt. It’s time to refuse to say the words “patriot” and “patriotism” except when they point to their classic meanings, which advocate placing others over self and advancing the greater good.
It’s also time to stand down people who use the terms to advance corrupt, self-serving agendas.
Christians, of all people, should understand and advocate for true patriotism. The idea of placing others ahead of self for the greater good is embedded in Jesus’ admonitions:
• “Love your neighbor as yourself” (Mark 12:31).
• “Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat you. If someone slaps you on one cheek, turn to them the other also. If someone takes your coat, do not withhold your shirt from them. Give to everyone who asks you, and if anyone takes what belongs to you, do not demand it back. Do to others as you would have them do to you” (Luke 6:27-31).
• “So, the last will be first, and the first will be last” (Matthew 20:16).
• “… whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be your slave” (Matthew 20:26-27).
• “‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.’… ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me’” (Matthew 25:40, 45).
Sadly, many U.S. Christians have adopted the prevailing culture’s worldview, which values self ahead of others and always seeks advantage. But if Christians take Jesus seriously, we will behave contrary to culture and embody the kind of love for others that shapes the essence of true patriotism.
Follow Marv on Twitter: @marvknox