Addressing Patriotism from a UU Perspective

What Patriotism Means to Me

by David Garnes 

Good morning, everyone:

When I was a very little boy, I’m told that whenever I was outdoors and saw a flag flying, I stopped to salute it. Clearly, this was a ritual that must have been taught to me by someone, and I suspect my grandmother may have been the culprit. This would have been in the waning days of World War II, when such a gesture would have been viewed warmly and affectionately by all who witnessed me making it. I’m sure I basked in the attention, but I’m also sure I had no idea what I was doing.

I think later on in school when we pledged allegiance to  the flag that was displayed above the blackboard, I was engaging in another ritual that became so routine that it lost whatever meaning it might have originally had. On Flag Day in 1954 the phrase “under god” was added to the end of “one nation” in the pledge. This may have added some religious weight to the pledge, but for me it didn’t make it any more meaningful.

Saluting the flag is one of the most typical examples one might cite of showing at least a cursory acknowledgment of patriotism, but  I’m not sure that as the years went by that I ever developed a concept of what that word might really mean to me.

More recently, patriotism has become one of those words that seem to have been appropriated, along with liberalism, to connote something or someone quite different from how I might view it or them. Interestingly, however, one of our early patriots, once wrote:

“In the future, mankind will be more apt to allow that all those who conduct themselves as worthy members of the community are equally entitled to the protections of civil government. I hope ever to see America among the foremost nations of justice and liberality.” Does anyone know who said that?…Well, it was the father of our country, George Washington, no less.

I find it interesting and not a little sad that over the course of our nation’s history, several of our national holidays have to do with war—Memorial Day, originally called Decoration Day when it was established after the Civil War; Veteran’s Day, formerly Armistice Day, to mark the ending of World War I. The Fourth of July, though the most celebratory of our patriotic holidays is also directly connected to the outcome of a violent struggle.

The word “patriot” came into official public use most notably with the establishment in various states of a Patriot’s Day, in some states spelled ‘s, in others s’, and usually celebrated on April 19. This is in commemoration of the Battles of Lexington and Concord. So the word has come to have a connotation that leans somewhat towards military associations, or at least a “my country right or wrong” attitude, most notably in times of war. And it is absolutely American in the events it commemorates, those shots heard around the world.. You almost can’t think of the word patriot without having the tune of Yankee Doodle Dandy pop into your head.

But patriotism has come in recent years to define political party affiliation as well. It has become a word that is often used to compare and criticize and separate, not to unify, heal, and work for a common purpose. Like liberalism, it’s a somewhat loaded word, particularly in our contemporary American culture. You can be judged as a person by how you fit into someone’s notion of what being a patriot means.

Ralph Waldo Emerson, one of our most eloquent Unitarians and a vastly influential public figure in his day, once wrote:  “I confess I am a little cynical on some topics & when a whole nation is roaring Patriotism at the top of its voice I am fain (meaning “inclined”) to explore the cleanness of its hands & the purity of its heart. I have generally found the gravest & most useful citizens are not the easiest provoked to swell the noise tho’ they may be punctual at polls,” end of quote (in other words, quietly taking advantage of civic opportunities to vote for those who are for the good of the country.”. That quote is from Emerson’s  Miscellaneous Journals.

In some ways, in our 21st century, we have almost outgrown the notion most commonly related to patriotism—that is, a fervent love of one’s own country—or to show strong patriotic feelings in that regard. If we confine patriotism to the love of a concept that is bordered by nationalistic ideals—just to our own country—I do  think we’re ignoring  the amazingly shrinking planet we inhabit.

Isolationism, building walls, patriotism bordering on xenophobia, taking steps backward from ties to other nations—these actions do not seem the best way to proceed. It’s hard not to see the exiting of Britain from the European Union as a kind of pride or love of country that harkens back to a time that is long gone, one where exclusivity triumphs over inclusivity.

Our UU principles, if we take them seriouisly, really demand interaction with everyone. Geographically, and in other ways, we may be separated both within our nation and with other nations, but the world is no longer a place where borders can serve the purpose of isolating and excluding.

If we’re to continue on a free and responsible search for truth and meaning, we need to do so in a world where we accept one another and where justice, equality, and compassion in human relations is the norm, and where we begin to exist as a world community. All these words and concepts permeate our principles. It’s all there. I’m so struck in re-reading our principles at how “universal” and forward-thinking they are as a necessary guide for future global behavior. Universal patriotism, I’d guess you’d say.

I want to end with a quote from one of my personal heroes, Eleanor Roosevelt. In her fruitful and influential life after FDR and the White House, she once wrote:  “True patriotism springs from a belief in the dignity of the individual, freedom and equality not only for Americans but for all people on earth, universal brotherhood and good will, and a constant and earnest striving toward the principles and ideals on which this country was founded.”


by Robert Sehi

My view of what is Patriotism has vastly changed since I was in Vietnam.  Its progress in me also relates to the rest of this message.  A Patriot is defined a person who loves and strongly supports or fights for his or her country.  That is how it is defined.  Often this has a connotation that incorporates some vision of the military.  Along with patriotism, we will also hear a lot in the near future about nationalism.  Nationalism is defined as a sense of national consciousness exalting one nation above all others and placing primary emphasis on promotion of its culture and interests as opposed to those of other nations or supranational groups.  I believe at this time in our nation’s history, we need to understand that both can be good and bad.

They are closely defined yet can be vastly different.  Both offer good and bad.  When I speak of nationalism on the positive side, what I mean is the type of desire of our nation to come out ahead without specifically separating people into categories.  How many of us would like to see the U.S.A. do great in the Olympics?  Maybe even in the World Soccer Championships? How much do we cheer when the women’s soccer team, and what a phenomenon they are, continually does so well in the world of soccer.

A personal example was my opportunity to perform as a balloon artist during the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics.  I stood in front of the coliseum that was fenced off, yet it was very clear what was happening in the track and field competition.  There were probably 4 to 5 thousand people milling around and suddenly we heard the beginning of our National Anthem.  All around me suddenly it got very quiet.  At the conclusion the roar of “USA, USA” was near deafening and I had chills and tears in my eyes. This was our Olympics.  USA’s!  What I witnessed were people of every ethnic background one can imagine cheering as well.  See, they too were American citizens and this was their Olympic as much as it was mine.  We were proud together.  In the other Nationalism, there is a connotation that one group of people should be in charge or in power over another minority group because, “it has always been that way.”  It may be due to a sense of superiority or perhaps a xenophobic response to anxiety.  The anxiety that you are losing your position in the community, in the labor market, or any other place of perceived right that is now being taken from you because of another group of people who are not like you.  You may have heard it with the remark, “we want our country back,” during President Obama’s first run as president.  There is some of that same connotation in the current political scene both here and overseas.

Patriotism supports or “fights” for his country.  I want us to note the word “fight.”  Remove any idea that this is a reference only to military.  In that quote about patriotism, the word love was also used.  Now I am going to share how I see patriotism.  Granted, this is not universal, and some may even think it is too altruistic and not realistic.  However, I would counter if we look at our country we will see how being a Patriot means to love, support and fight for it.  In the 1850’s there were church’s in the southern part of the U.S. that supported and preached, using scriptures, that slavery of the black population was proper under God’s eyes.  It took a Civil War to get the emancipation proclamation signed and though it freed many slaves in that time, the African Americans rights have yet to be fully experienced.  Yet, we have numerous laws that have passed moving this intention forward.  If you had told me in 1968 that we would have a black president someday I would have scoffed.  Not in my lifetime.  Many people have fought to make these movements happen with the idea that their country, the one they love, can be better.  Women’s suffrage began in 1848, yet it was not until August of 1920 that women received the right to vote.  One can hear the clamor about letting “women” vote.  If anyone saw the movie “Lincoln,” you can hear some of the background statements along this line in the debate about the emancipation proclamation.  Yet, women marched, suffered, struggled, because they loved this country and knew it could do better.  We could move forward as a country.  Who knows, perhaps in my lifetime I will also see a woman president.  Let me add something here that most people don’t think about.  As many of you are aware, I am a Vietnam Veteran.  On January 21 1977, President Carter pardoned those who were identified as draft dodgers.  There were many who protested this pardon and needless to say there was some nasty rhetoric.  I became aware that many of these draft dodgers had not only done what they felt was right for themselves.  Perhaps they chose not to fight a war they felt was wrong for their country.  Can you see this may also be a patriotic act?  Perhaps the most recent evidence we move forward is in the movement of the LGBT-Q community and the civil rights that are slowly being accumulated for this community as well.  The 1969 Stonewall shootings are a testimony of people who knew and took action to state that the country should do better.  Some lost their lives.  We are moving forward.  I have also seen the dark side of “patriotism” in statements like, “love it or leave it.”  The division of our great country on Vietnam where those who opposed it were considered unpatriotic whereas others believed it was not just.  After 9/11, remember instead of saying French fries, people changed them to “freedom fries?”  There was even an accusation that our current President is not patriotic because he does not use a certain phrase that some people feel is necessary to instill some sort of imagined bravado before our enemies.

As you can see, I keep mentioning this movement forward.  To me this is what a Patriot is.  A person, in whatever capacity they can, who works towards the betterment of our society that comprises all types of people.  People who are of different skin color, ethnic backgrounds, religious beliefs, different sexual orientation and identification, or any other category you can name.  Yes, many if not most of us will be rooting for the U.S. team at the Olympics this year.  That is a kind of good nationalism.  Patriotism is taking the ideals of this great country and moving them forward.  We do not need to make American great again, it is already great.  It is becoming greater.  We still have to fight for certain rights of individuals and groups of people.  Yet, when it is accomplished, it is recognized as quite an achievement, and for the most part our country accepts these changes.  Yes, I will defend this great nation in its lofty goals, in its concept of democracy, equality for all, and it is incumbent that this movement move forward – and this will continue long after I am gone.  A patriot may be a soldier, it may be a draft dodger, it may be a Muslim, it may be a some with a “alternative lifestyle”, a different color of skin, speaks a different language, but the ideal of the United States is moving forward.  Forward to the ideals and the aspirations of the founders of the country to establish a country founded on principles of equality, of fairness, where a populace participated in the rule of law and the changes to it.  I am damn proud to call you my fellow Patriots.  It is happening.  May it continue – we have a way to go, but we are making progress – believe Patriots.

I would like to finish with two quotes:

One from Giuseppe Mazzini

God has given you your country as a cradle, and humanity as a mother; you cannot rightly love your brethren of the cradle if you love not the common mother.

(Giuseppe Mazzini was an Italian politician, journalist and activist for the unification of Italy and spearheaded the Italian revolutionary movement.  His effort helped bring about the independent and unified Italy in place of the several separate states, many dominated by foreign powers that existed until the 19th century.  He also helped define modern European movement for popular democracy in a republican state.)

The second is on the plaque at the base of the Statue of Liberty which says:

Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free.

We, the Patriots, who are sometimes nationalists as well, are the foundation of this promise as well as for the greatest experiment in freedom ever attempted on the face of the earth.  Our Constitution of the United States.  May you have a happy 4th of July.