(This is a shortened version of my homily from Sunday, July 7. I thought I would share it with all of you.)
PATRIOTISM. The 4th of July is a day on which Americans celebrate patriotism. But not all Americans. As one newspaper headline read: “American patriotism is at a record low,” as it cited a new Gallup poll that shows a dramatic decrease when people are asked how proud they are to be American.
That may anger or sadden some of us, but is it wrong? Does God command us to be patriotic? The answer is, yes.
Jesus tells us that the 2 greatest commandments are first, to love God with all your heart, mind, soul and strength, and second, to love your neighbor as yourself. As St. Thomas Aquinas explains that our first neighbor is our parents (family), but after that our second neighbor, is our country, or our “patria” in Latin, and our fellow countrymen.
So that the 2nd great commandment applies first to parents and family and second to country and countrymen. We see this specified, if you will, in the 4th commandment: “Honor your father and mother.” God gives you parents and family to love and care for you, and in return calls you to love and care for them—to “honor” them. And in the same way, God gives us our country and fellow countrymen to love and care for us, and so we in turn must love and care for our country and countrymen.
Of course, the people in other countries are also our neighbors, and God commands us to love them also. But it’s a matter of priorities: we should love and help the people next door, but clearly before that we should take care of our families first: it’s a simple rule, “charity begins at home.”
And it’s the same thing with patriotism. We should love people in other countries, but first we should love, honor and care for our country and our countrymen.
Now, some today would equate, or conflate, “patriotism” with what has been historically called “nationalism.” Even good patriots use the term “nationalism” when I think what they really mean is “patriotism”. I wish they wouldn’t confuse the two.
Because historically “nationalism” is different from patriotism, in that historical nationalism would say not, “America first,” but “American, first, last and only.” Historical nationalism would even allow us to conquer foreign lands just because we think our nation is better and has a right to take whatever we want. That’s wrong—that is sinful.
But a patriot would not say, “American, first, last and only,” but rather, “America first, but then everyone else is second,” or better yet, “God, first, family second, and America third…and everyone else fourth.”
What about people who aren’t citizens, maybe they’re law-abiding non-citizen residents? Well, perhaps the term “fellow countryman” might include them, but even if it doesn’t, then it would simply mean that after citizens, these good people would come next in priority over all others.
But what about people who come to or remain in our country illegally —don’t we owe them honor and love, too? Yes, of course! But in order of nature and nature’s God, our priorities are family, countrymen, and then others.
Now we have to be careful. Just as patriotism isn’t historical nationalism, it also isn’t historical “nativism” —prioritizing people who are born here, so excluding immigrants. Patriotism, on the other hand, extends priority to all who share the same commitment to be part of the fabric of our country—including those whom God has moved here from other countries, and who are sincerely committed to Patriotism.
And Patriotism also isn’t the same as loving the government per se, but rather honoring the government to the extend it is part of the country and at the service of the people of the country. For example, we don’t honor the president because he’s in charge, or even because we like him as a person, but because he holds an office that is an important part of our country, and even a symbol of our country as a whole.
The thing is, Patriotism is not just an ideal, but has a practical everyday application. First of all, it means learning the history of our country, both the good and bad. But like a family that embraces the good memories and works to fix the bad, patriots celebrate the greatness in our history, even as we learn from and work to overcome our failures. But a patriot does not allow past failures to cause us to dishonor our country.
Patriotism also involves participation in the life of our nation. This includes everything from working productively in school or at a job, to raising a good and healthy family, to paying taxes. But it especially involves participating in the public square, including voting whenever there is an election, and even campaigning for candidates who truly want the best for our country.
Patriotism also means defending our country. So many of you have taken up arms to defend our country: thank you for your service, you are true patriots. But defending America also includes simply standing up for the good of our country, not being silenced by the politically correct crowd but speaking out publicly to promote what you believe is genuinely good for our country.
And Patriotism means truly striving for the good of each other. This means both providing opportunities for everyone to provide for their own well-being, primarily through just laws and a sound economic system, but also providing necessities for those who truly cannot provide for themselves.
And it means respecting each other in word and action. Like a family, we can argue, but also like a family, there are lines we know we should never cross, because we know that would be too much. Too often today our public discourse crosses those lines of respect and honor, and as patriots we cannot participate in this.
And Patriotism means honoring the symbols of our country. I have pictures of my family all over the rectory; they are just images on paper, but they remind me of my family and help me to honor and love them. It’s the same thing with the symbols of America. So, when the American flag passes or the National Anthem is played it is important to be patriotic and honor America by standing and maybe placing our hands over our hearts. When I look at a picture of my mother or father, I don’t think of the times they might have been too harsh with me—no, I focus on what made them so good, and the love between us.
So when we see the original American flag with 13 stars we shouldn’t see it as a sign of the injustices tolerated at our founding, but as a sign of the great and noble ideals enshrined in the founding—ideals like “all men are created equal”—that have propelled us to work to overcome those errors.
To some today, it seems patriotism is a dirty word, or a sign of partisanship. It should not be. Patriotism is an essential part of what it means to be a virtuous person, and a true Christian.
Oremus pro invicem. Fr. De Celles