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Mark Alexander / Jun. 22, 2007

Reflections on patriotism

“Guard against the impostures of pretended patriotism.” –George Washington

Reminiscing about his opposition to the Spanish-American War, Samuel Clemens, better known as Mark Twain, wrote in his diary for 1905-06, “There are two kinds of patriotism: monarchical patriotism and republican patriotism.” He continued, “In the one case the government and the king may rightfully furnish you with notions of patriotism; in the other, neither the government nor the entire nation is privileged to dictate to any individual what the form of his patriotism shall be. The Gospel of the Monarchical Patriotism is: ‘The King can do no wrong.’ We have adopted it with all its servility, with an unimportant change in the wording: ‘Our country, right or wrong!’” Sadly, Clemens’ insights into patriotism turned to cynicism. Patriotism is, he concludes, a “grotesque and laughable word.”

Contrary to what “the father of American literature” suggests, American patriotism is not jingoism: Waving a flag no more makes a man a patriot than waving his arms makes him a bird. Yet worse than jingoism are attempts to recast patriotism as unquestioning loyalty to the state. If true patriotism is not jingoistic, neither is it nationalistic.

Clemens’ contemporary, Walt Whitman, erred by construing patriotism as nationalism, concluding in his famed lecture “Death of Abraham Lincoln” that “battles, martyrs, agonies, blood, even assassination, should so condense – perhaps only really, lastingly condense – a Nationality.” Absent from Whitman’s words is the reality that American patriotism revolves around a set of ideas, setting it apart from the older, blood-and-soil nationalism of Europe by much more than an ocean.

So, how do we understand American patriotism without slipping into Clemens’ patriotism-as-jingoism cynicism, or Whitman’s patriotism-as-nationalism nostalgia? Or, as George Washington warned, how do we “Guard against the impostures of pretended patriotism”?

J. Gresham Machen, a rough contemporary of both Clemens and Whitman, weighed these questions carefully. As a theologian and a minister, Machen never set patriotism at the heart of his work, yet from his early days as a YMCA volunteer on the front lines in the First World War (he did not think it appropriate for a minister to be a combatant), he pondered deeply and frequently the nature of patriotism in the modern world.

Machen led the movement against progressivism in theology at Princeton Seminary in the 1920s and then went on to found both a seminary and a Presbyterian denomination. It is no coincidence that one of the century’s most profound (if ignored) thinkers on American patriotism was also in the vanguard of the battle against theological liberalism in its earliest days.

In his 1919 chapel address at Princeton Seminary, “The Church in the War,” Machen addressed this very issue. As men fought and died amid the horrors of WWI, he observed that American religion had taken a turn for the worse: “Men have trusted for their own salvation and for the hope of the world in the merit of their own self-sacrifice rather than in the one act of sacrifice which was accomplished some nineteen hundred years ago by Jesus Christ.”

The sacrifice made by American soldiers in the cause of liberty is not to be diminished, said Machen – far from it. Their sacrifice “deserves not less but more honor than they are receiving from their fellow citizens.” However, such sacrifice is not redemptive. To say otherwise is not patriotism, but idolatry. The seminary’s failure to grasp this would lead Machen to conclude privately, “Princeton is a hotbed of patriotic enthusiasm and military ardor, which makes me feel like a man without a country.”

Yet idolatry in the name of patriotism – what Machen described as “modern paganism” – did not begin or end with World War I. He expanded upon this idea in his 1931 essay “Christianity and Liberty.” Even in 1931, Machen remarked that the term “liberty” (much less “patriotism”), sadly, had been termed archaic. “The real indictment against the modern world is that by the modern world human liberty is being destroyed.”

In the modern world, the ideal of the state as the guardian of liberty was replaced with the concept of the utilitarian government: from the advent of a federal Department of Education in the United States (instead of “all sorts of queer private schools and parochial schools to confuse the mind of youth,” as Machen wrote) to Italy’s example, where “Mussolini is thought to be a benefactor of the race because, although liberty of speech is destroyed in Italy, the streets of Italian cities are clean.”

The examples of liberty surrendered, says Machen, are endless. He reinforced this sentiment in his 1937 classic, The Christian View of Man, in which he showed that liberty and patriotism – as one would expect – are inextricably linked. Here, Machen expressed his concern over a society increasingly detached from a morality and law rooted in the Word of God. “Everywhere,” he wrote, “tyranny is stalking through the earth, and decadence disguised under a hundred newfangled and high-sounding names.”

“What shall be done about it,” Machen asked prophetically, “to prevent [man] from destroying himself, for example, by another world war?” Patriotism, he said, lies at the heart of that answer.

We must, however, be wary of hollow and dangerous imitations. “Patriotism,” said the great English author and lexicographer Samuel Johnson, “is the last refuge of a scoundrel.” Likewise, said Machen, for those tyrants who would direct patriotism away from the ideals of liberty and toward the absolutized state, as in “Hitlerized Germany” or the “march of communism.” “A thousand nostrums are being brought to our attention, different in many particulars but all alike in being destructive of that civil and religious liberty which our fathers won at such cost,” he warned. “Such measures will never accomplish even the end that they have in view. Patriotism can never be implanted in people’s hearts by force. The attempt to do that serves only to crush out patriotism when it is already there.”

In other words, true patriotism is inseparable from liberty, and “liberty under the law of God,” said Machen, is the key to the preservation of a free society. We must, he said, “get rid of this notion that judges and juries exist only for the utilitarian purpose of the protection of society.” Rather, he posits, “They exist for the purposes of justice.”

Patriotism, liberty and God’s moral order: These ideas are utterly inseparable, together forming the foundation of our nation. Patriotism cannot be separated from liberty, just as liberty cannot be separated from God’s law and justice, lest both become perverted, meaningless or even dangerous.

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