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Whatever happened to patriotism?

A healthy love of country is nothing to disdain


The flag-draped casket bearing the remains of Hershel W. "Woody" Williams, the last surviving Medal of Honor recipient from World War II, arrives to lie in honor in the U.S. Capitol on July 14. Chip Somodevilla/Pool photo via Associated Press

Whatever happened to patriotism?
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I am named for my paternal grandfather, John C. W. Dix, who served as a lieutenant on board USS Hoel, a destroyer in the Pacific Theater during World War II. The Hoel was heavily engaged off Samar during the Battle of Leyte Gulf in October 1944, the largest naval engagement in history. Absorbing hits from three Japanese battleships, the Hoel distracted the enemy long enough to provide time for six American carriers to attack a fleet of four enemy battleships, six heavy cruisers, two light cruisers, and eleven destroyers. The Hoel was severely punished by the Japanese battleships, taking about forty hits.

When it succumbed and went down, my grandfather was one of 86 survivors cast into the sea. Two hundred fifty-three American sailors and marines were lost. Five years after the battle, my grandfather wrote a memorial to the men who were killed during the battle in a little book he entitled Missing off Samar. Twenty-four years after the battle (and ten days after my birth), my grandfather, who suffered in daily silence from what we now know as post-traumatic stress disorder, committed suicide. The forlorn little book he wrote remains a precious family heirloom. It is also a memorial to his own life and sacrifice, for he too was a casualty of that battle, albeit 24 years later.

Considering the state of American culture in the early 2020s, I often think about the striking contrast between expressions of national devotion in my grandfather’s time and how love of country is thought of in our own. It seems that there exist two dominant manners in which Americans of today regard national devotion. One is this thing called “Christian nationalism.” Academics have been writing about Christian nationalism since about 2006, but since the election of Donald Trump and the publication of Andrew Whitehead and Samuel Perry’s Taking America Back for God: Christian Nationalism in the United States, Katherine Stewart’s The Power Worshippers: Inside the Dangerous Rise of Religious Nationalism, and Kristin Kobes Du Mez’s Jesus and John Wayne: How Evangelicals Corrupted a Faith and Fractured a Nation, it seems everyone is talking about it. Christian nationalism, we are told, is a monolithic idea that is essentially racist, misogynist, imperialist, violent—and according to some prominent Christians, heretical. Anyone who is conservative, Christian, white, believes in biblical inerrancy, and celebrates America as a God-ordained force for good in the world is a Christian nationalist who makes the nation into an idol.

Healthy love of country is a rightly ordered love, not intruding upon the loyalties owed to superior loves, and also not being neglected in favor of inferior loves.

The other pole is this thing popularly identified as “Murica.” With Murica, we have the nation essentially identified with beer guzzling, profligate gun-firing, monster trucks, star-spangled attire, American eagles screaming “Freedom!”, and endless flag waving while recklessly shooting fireworks off the back of a motorboat. Murica is, of course, a jest of excess. Do a search of gifs with the keyword “Murica,” and you will find all these motifs, along with mockers like Stephen Colbert dancing ridiculously with an American flag or the fictional character Ron Swanson as a parody of patriotism. While Christian nationalism represents national devotion as wicked, “Murica” represents it as absurd. Both are used as tropes to undermine patriotism.

Yet, there are respected voices who labor to correct these widespread views that subvert national devotion. One of the best books written on patriotism is Steven B. Smith’s Reclaiming Patriotism in an Age of Extremes. He finds patriotism between the extremes of nationalism and cosmopolitanism and considers patriotism in Augustinian terms. Healthy love of country is a rightly ordered love, not intruding upon the loyalties owed to superior loves, and also not being neglected in favor of inferior loves. Love and preference for country are like the unique affections each of us has for our wives and children. I love my wife more than I love yours, but because I prefer my wife over yours does not mean that I hate your wife. My love for my people is rightly ordered, just as my love for my country.

Men like my grandfather understood ordered love for country. They proved it by their sacrifice. They would not have understood concepts of national devotion as being wicked or a bemused joke. They would shake their heads in stupefaction at us for entertaining such abhorrent concepts.

Russell Kirk, in his Roots of American Order, cited T. S. Eliot’s analysis of Vergil’s Aeneid. He noted that Eliot identified three traits of Roman patriotism in the Aeneid: labor, pietas, and fatum. For our purposes, pietas and fatum are most appropriate to consider. Pietas was consistent with an ordered love for God first, then country. It entailed a strong sense of duty to both in an ordered sense. Fatum indicated the importance of Roman destiny or mission to, in Kirk’s words, “bring peace to the world, to maintain the cause of order and justice and freedom, to withstand barbarism.” While I do not know if my grandfather was familiar with these Vergilian terms, I know that he lived them and put his life on the line for them.

To be sure, we must guard against the manifestations of Christian nationalism that are truly wicked and anti-gospel. But we must also guard against losing these traits of pietas and fatum. If we lose these, we lose our country. And if we lose our country, we lose each other.


John D. Wilsey

John D. Wilsey is associate professor of church history and philosophy at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary and a research fellow at the Center for Religion, Culture, & Democracy, an initiative of First Liberty Institute.


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