What is Patriotism?

Posted August 9, 2013

By: Reda Hicks

Reda Hicks is a partner in a Houston, Texas-based litigation boutique, and serves as Managing Editor for the Military Spouse JD Network (MSJDN), overseeing, among other things, the development and production of MSJDN’s Bars and Stripes news journal. She is also MSJDN’s Governance Director, and is a member of its Government Relations Committee. Reda is the proud wife of an Army helicopter pilot named Jake, and mother to a beautiful (and rambunctious) three-year-old boy named Howie. In addition to writing for MSJDN and her Hickshiking blog, Reda is a regular contributor to legal scholarship on environmental law and natural resources issues.

Reda joins 5 other mil-bloggers who, over the next few months, will share their deployment-related stories. You can catch up on all their blog posts on the Blue Star Families Blog and don’t forget to take a look at BSF’s free e-book “Everyone Serves: A Handbook for Family and Friends of Service Members During Pre-Deployment, Deployment and Reintegration.

“Howie and I got to spend this past week–and Independence Day–with Jake in Kansas. We saw an exceptional fireworks display in a place called Wamego (home of all things Oz, in case you were wondering). We watched a parade, hit the playground, ate hot dogs, and shooed away no less than a thousand mosquitoes. Bugs aside, it was a nice, relaxing time with family and friends.

That tends to be the way that we think of our Independence Day: indulgence in all things American with family and friends. Fireworks; baseball; Old Glory; red, white and blue desserts; some patriotic tunes; more than a few libations.

And that is exactly as our forefathers intended it. In a letter to his wife Abigail, John Adams described the ideal commemoration of our Independence Day this way:

It ought to be commemorated, as the Day of Deliverance by solemn Acts of Devotion to God Almighty. It ought to be solemnized with Pomp and Parade, with Shews, Games, Sports, Guns, Bells, Bonfires and Illuminations from one End of this Continent to the other from this Time forward forever more. You will think me transported with Enthusiasm but I am not. I am well aware of the Toil and Blood and Treasure, that it will cost Us to maintain this Declaration, and support and defend these States. Yet through all the Gloom I can see the Rays of ravishing Light and Glory.

In a word: celebration. So I guess we are still doing it right.

Early in the day on the Fourth of July, before the fun and gluttony, I read a great piece by Brett McCracken about patriotism (serendipitous, since patriotism was on my “to write about” list for this week), and it really made me think. McCracken talks about patriotism in terms of a deep-seeded love of where we come from. He describes it as “a natural feeling of admiration and nostalgia for the place we call home.”

When you think of it that way, celebrating our most patriotic holiday–FREEDOM’s birthday!–with family, friends, and American staples makes a lot of sense. For one day, we put aside the many things that divide us, and we focus on what makes us the same: we’re Americans. There are things in this world that are uniquely ours, and we celebrate them. Loudly!

As I ran through my mental inventory of all things homegrown, I was reminded of another time we really rally around being American: the Olympics.

We root for Team USA, just as each of the other countries competing root for their own. During those short weeks every few years, we truly understand that patriotism is universal. Competitive, perhaps, in a friendly sort of way; but we recognize that “love for home” belongs to everyone. C.S. Lewis (one of my favorite authors!) in his book The Four Loves describes the right kind of patriotism this way:

In any mind that has a pennyworth of imagination [patriotism] produces a good attitude towards foreigners. How can I love my home without coming to realize that other men, no less rightly, love theirs? Once you have realized that Frenchmen like cafe’ complet just as we like bacon and eggs–why good luck to them and let them have it. The last thing we want is to make everywhere else just like our own home. It would not be home unless it were different.

We love home because it is something special. It’s unique. No matter how global this world becomes, there are some things about “home” that simply can’t be replicated anywhere else.

On Saturday, when we were making the long drive to Kansas city to part ways yet again, I asked my husband what comes to mind when he thinks of patriotism. He said that patriotism made him think of duty, responsibility to protect. Jake’s response made me wonder if other soldiers would say in the same thing. It reminded me of another quote from The Four Loves about patriotism: “It becomes militant only to protect what it loves.”

It occurred to me that for some people, love of country must manifest itself in an innate desire to protect and defend “home” and everyone in it. I think at the foundation of true patriotism is a selfless kind of love. It calls some among us to serve and protect the rest of us, even when they’ve never met us; even when it means sacrifice; even when it costs them everything. That is nothing short of awesome. I think Jesus said it best: “Greater love has no one than this, that someone lay down his life for his friends.” (John 15:13).

This protective sensibility is rare if our current military numbers are any indication–only about 1% of the entire population serves this country in the U.S. Uniformed Services. Add on top of that all other kinds of “protectors” in this great nation, and I doubt the percentage changes dramatically. One person protects a hundred, freely and willingly; that makes this characteristic all the more precious.

And I will admit, despite growing up with military family and friends all around me, I took that rare gift for granted until I married a person who possessed it. Let me tell you, when you find yourself standing beside a person who would lay down his life for a perfect stranger, it is a profoundly humbling experience. Yet it fills you with this deep sense of pride that this is the best of us. My husband’s devotion pushes me to be better. To do better. To love better.

There’s one other thing that really strikes me about true patriotism, and that is its distinction from nationalism. Patriotism says “I love my country.” Nationalism says “there is no country on the planet better than mine, and all others should be just like it.” Now, granted that some patriotic people are also nationalistic. But I think that often people who poke fun at patriotism (or are even derisive about it) don’t actually mean patriotism. They mean nationalism; they mean love of country with blinders on. And that’s not really patriotism at all.

Patriotism says “I love my country, warts and all.” In some ways, it’s like any other relationship we hold truly dear. We recognize the people we love aren’t perfect, but we love them anyway. Sometimes they ask for more than we want to give, but we give it anyway. Sometimes they let us down, make the wrong decisions, but we love them anyway. And we do what’s in our power to help them, make them strive for better. We hope the best for them. Because they are family. Because they are ‘home.'”

This piece was originally published on Hicks Hiking Through Life.