restoring our biblical and constitutional foundations


True Patriotism

 David Alan Black

C. S. Lewis, formerly professor of Medieval and Renaissance literature at Cambridge University, once noted how words change their meaning through time. Thus, he said, the word gentleman originally referred to someone who had a coat of arms and some landed property. When, therefore, you called someone a “gentleman,” you were merely giving information about a person, not paying him a compliment. A liar could also be gentleman. Likewise, if you said a person was not a “gentleman,” you intended no insult.

Then people decided to sentimentalize the term and make it refer to behavior. Writes Lewis:

They meant well. To be honourable and courteous and brave is of course a far better thing than to have a coat of arms. But it is not the same thing. Worse still, it is not a thing everyone will agree about. To call a man “a gentleman” in this new, refined sense, becomes, in fact, but a way of praising him: to deny that he is “a gentleman” becomes simply a way of insulting him…. A gentleman, once it has been spiritualized and refined out of its old coarse, objective sense, means hardly more than a man whom the speaker likes. As a result, gentleman is now a useless word (Mere Christianity, p. 10).

Today the same thing could be said, I suppose, about the word patriotism. Today patriotism means little more than a sentimental attachment to one’s country of origin. Note, for example, the pabulum in Rachel Coughran’s definition:

It’s the tears that fall down a mother’s cheek...
It’s the empty arms of a lonely wife...
It’s the unanswered questions of a little child...
It’s the pride that swells as Old Glory flies...
It’s the hearts that break when she’s bruised and beaten...
It’s the lives that have been given for her cause...
It’s every American’s responsibility...
It’s the Love of our Great Country!

To this we might add parades, flag-waving, speech-making, and fireworks. When a “patriot” speaks you hear phrases like “the greatest nation in the world” and “land of liberty.” For most people, patriotism is like cheering for “my” team at a football game. It is “America—love it or leave it.” The implication is that people must abjectly follow their politicians. It [Bruegel Print, Poster - Parable of the Blind leading the Blind]is the blind leading the blind, as in Pieter Bruegel’s famous painting, Parable of the Blind Year.

None of these things, in my opinion, constitutes true patriotism. Let me suggest what patriotism really is, or at least what it meant originally. The true American patriot is the one who:

  • is devoted, not to government per se, but to good government, which by definition is limited constitutional government, and to the freedoms of individuals as guaranteed by the Bill of Rights and secured to them by the Ninth and Tenth Amendments.
  • recognizes that occupants of public offices love power and are prone to abuse it and that our Founders desired, above all else, to secure to the people in a written Constitution every right that they had wrested from autocratic rulers while they were struggling for the right of self-rule and freedom.
  • recognizes that all rights come from God and are therefore unalienable (i.e., they cannot be taken away) and that violation of these rights by government is nothing less than tyranny.
  • understands that the supreme duty of government as envisioned by our Founding Fathers is to defend the Constitution and to oppose all enactments that violate the supreme law of the land.
  • understands that it is improper to approve funds for any federal agency, program, or activity that is not specifically authorized by the Constitution.
  • understands that it is never the proper role of government to take money from one wage earner and transfer that wealth to another.
  • understands that the right to keep and bear arms is guaranteed by the Second Amendment to the Constitution and that it may not properly be infringed upon or denied.
  • recognizes that only Congress has the constitutional authority to declare war.

Perhaps all this could be reduced to one kernel virtue. Historically speaking, the true patriot is one who strives to defend and uphold the Constitution of the United States. That means, among other things, that a patriot is someone who knows what the Constitution says!

True patriotism is understanding the concept of freedom, and both living it and teaching it to others. It is not blind support of a politician—any politician! As Richard Falk once said, “Confusing patriotism with unconditional support for government policy does core damage to the meaning of citizenship.” Why, then, label “unpatriotic” those who make an honest effort to call Americans back to the Constitution? Criticize their ideas if you like, but not their loyalty!

That would be true patriotism.

March 11, 2004

David Alan Black is the editor of His latest book, Why I Stopped Listening to Rush: Confessions of a Recovering Neocon, will be released this year.

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