Alexander's Column

On Patriotism

Mark Alexander · Jan. 1, 2000

(For additional resources, see The Patriot’s Historic Documents page.)

The selection of the name The Patriot for this publication (originally The Federalist) was a very deliberate decision – and not one that we take lightly. Doing so implies correctly that we entertain a specific definition of what patriotism is, but defining the concept of American patriotism is not a simple exercise. Pat answers abound, and popular culture encourages such answers, but they are ultimately unsatisfying. Contrary to what the cynics say, patriotism is not synonymous with jingoism. At the opposite end of the spectrum, waving a flag no more makes a man a patriot than waving his arms makes him a bird.

“Guard,” George Washington implored in his Farewell Address to the nation, “against the impostures of pretended patriotism.”

Even worse than clichés and jingoism are attempts to recast patriotism as unquestioning loyalty to the state. If patriotism is not jingoism, neither is it nationalism. In a free society patriotism is anything but blind obedience to the whims of the state. Indeed, the nation – a society grounded in the ideals of liberty – not the state, is the proper object of patriotism. In its classic sense then, patriotism is not loyalty to a state as such, but rather loyalty to the ideals of a society: Ideals of personal liberty and responsibility, limited government, rule of law and justice. While states, governments or administrations may change, the ideals of liberty remain constant.

This idea that a society of liberty, rather than the state, should be the object of patriotism has been evident from our nation’s very beginnings. In the Declaration of Independence:

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. – That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed…

In the Constitution:

We the people of the United States, in order to form a more perfect union, establish justice, insure domestic tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general welfare, and secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity…

In our national Pledge:

…one Nation under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.

In each of these documents, it is ideals characterizing American society, not the mere existence of an American state, which command our patriotism. Jonathan Foreman, a journalist and historian of American patriotism, recently explained this concept of patriotism, saying, “fundamentally I believe that American patriotism is different from other patriotisms. It’s not a blood-and-soil nationalism…. We are a nation based not on race or deep roots in a particular landscape, but on a proposition, on certain political and philosophical ideals.” A commitment to the principles that guided the creation of our great Republic, not unquestioning loyalty to the state, constitutes American patriotism. After all, the roots of American patriotism reside in the very willingness to question a state – the British crown – that acted contrary to the ideals of liberty.

Mark Twain, a chronicler of so much of the development of American patriotism, also understood something of the dangers of Washington’s “pretended patriotism”:

“There are two kinds of patriotism: monarchical patriotism and republican patriotism. 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 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!’”

Regrettably, Twain’s insights into patriotism all too frequently turned to outright cynicism. Patriotism is, Twain would say, a “grotesque and laughable word.”

So, without falling into any of the traps of pretended patriotism – jingoism, nationalism or cynicism – how can we define American patriotism and the ideals it represents?

For the past decade the editors of The Patriot have maintained that this is not a “Christian publication,” but a “publication written by Christians.” As Christians, we have turned to our faith to enlighten our understanding of patriotism. Unfortunately, however, too many Christians and Christian denominations have either co-opted Christianity as merely one aspect of American patriotism among many others, or else denounced patriotism as a sentiment incompatible with the faith.

Unlike those who make such a choice, we have no intention of being gored on either horn of that bull. Indeed, it is a false dilemma. Rather than subsuming Christianity under patriotism (as does the so-called “Christian America” movement) or declaring patriotism and faith as mutually exclusive loyalties, we see the foundation of the one in the other. If patriotism is to have a definitive object in the ideals of liberty, the ideals of liberty must have an objective definition in faith.

J. Gresham Machen, possibly the most significant thinker on patriotism in the 20th century, understood this well. Unlike Twain, for Machen, cynicism in the face of patriotism’s abuse was not enough.

As a theologian, patriotism was never at the heart of Machen’s work, yet from his early days as a YMCA volunteer on the frontlines of 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.

It was Machen who led the movement against progressivism in theology at Princeton Seminary in the 1920s, and it was Machen who went on to found both a seminary and a Presbyterian denomination, both of which continue to bear his mark today. It is no coincidence, we believe, that one of the century’s most profound thinkers on American patriotism was also in the vanguard of the battle against theological liberalism in its earliest days.

This fact is apparent in Machen’s 1919 chapel address at Princeton Seminary, “The Church in the War.” As men fought and died amid the horrors of WWI, Machen observes, American religion took 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.”

But the sacrifice made by American soldiers in the cause of liberty is not to be diminished, says Machen – far from it. Their sacrifice “deserves not less but more honor than they are receiving from their fellow citizens.” However, such a sacrifice is not redemptive. To say otherwise is not patriotism, but idolatry.

Yet idolatry in the name of patriotism – what Machen describes as “modern paganism” – does not begin or end with World War I. Machen expands upon this idea in his 1931 essay “Christianity and Liberty.” Even in 1931, Machen remarks that the term “liberty” (much less “patriotism”), sadly, has 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 had been replaced with the concept of the utilitarian state: 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”) to Mussolini’s Italy (“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.

Like Machen, our Founders understood that a free society could not long endure without the patriotism of its members. “Patriotism is as much a virtue as justice,” wrote Founding Father Benjamin Rush, “and is as necessary for the support of societies as natural affection is for the support of families.”

This was also Machen’s sentiment in his 1937 classic, The Christian View of Man, where he shows that liberty and patriotism – as one would expect – are inextricably linked. Here, Machen expresses his concern over a society increasingly detached from a morality and law rooted in the Word of God. “Everywhere,” he writes, “tyranny is stalking through the earth, and decadence disguised under a hundred newfangled and high-sounding names.”

“What shall be done about it,” Machen asks, prophetically, “to prevent [man] from destroying himself, for example, by another world war?” Patriotism, he says, lies at the heart of that answer – but we must be wary of hollow and dangerous imitations.

The tyrant’s answer, he says, is to 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,” warns Machen. “Such measures will never accomplish even the end that they have in view. Patriotism can never be implanted in peoples’ 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,” says Machen, is the key to the preservation of a free society. We must, he says, “get rid of this notion that judges and juries exist only for the utilitarian purpose of the protection of society.” Rather, posits Machen, “they exist for the purposes of justice.”

Patriotism, liberty, God’s law and justice: 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.

Thus, patriotism is a dynamic activity, not some static sentiment. Genuine patriotism is not merely a conduit for shallow praise of the nation-state. The true patriot supports his country when it conforms to God’s norms of justice; he works to change his country when it does not.

We do well if we remember and heed Washington’s famous General Orders of July 2, 1776:

“Our own Country’s Honor, all call upon us for a vigorous and manly exertion, and if we now shamefully fail, we shall become infamous to the whole world. Let us therefore rely upon the goodness of the Cause, and the aid of the supreme Being, in whose hands Victory is, to animate and encourage us to great and noble Actions – The Eyes of all our Countrymen are now upon us, and we shall have their blessings, and praises, if happily we are the instruments of saving them from the Tyranny mediated against them. Let us therefore animate and encourage each other, and shew the whole world, that a Freeman contending for Liberty on his own ground is superior to any slavish mercenary on earth.”