I used to think patriotism was the problem.
I always struggled to understand the attachment of my grandparents’ generation to the United States of America. Sure, I grew up with a healthy appreciation for the government of our nation. Absolutely, I deeply value the principles laid out in our Constitution. Certainly, I am grateful for the home this country has given to my family, with immigrants on both sides. Yet, the confident belief that there is no better country than ours never took quite so firm a hold on my heart.
Some of it is certainly my youth and my privilege — I haven’t lived through wars at home, known the destitution of utter poverty, or felt the helplessness of living under an invading power. Some of it is also the disillusioned cynicism ingrained by today’s political culture. However, some of it also comes from an inner skepticism, a lingering concern that national loyalty might actually be part of the problem.
First, I struggled with the reality that loyalty is inherently preferential, and therefore, I believed, divisive. I am deeply convicted by the idea that human beings have equal dignity and value, regardless of nationality, allegiance, or creed. Loyalty always seemed to rub up against that conviction uncomfortably, favoring that which is similar to me as somehow superior.
Second, I was concerned with how loyalty blinds us to our faults. As we continue to remain loyal to our polarized echo-chambers, we fail to appreciate nuance, compromise, and the complex nature of loving our country. The gap in our realities can breed hypocrisy, hatred, and even violence.
Thus, I concluded, loyalty can be good only insofar as its object is good. And the United States, for all its merits, might take a lot of grace to be considered “good.”
As my mind shifted to other forms of loyalty, I realized how inconsistent my own affections were with these arguments. What of my loyalty to my family? Is it because I consider them to be “good”? Is it wrong to prefer them to some other equally valuable collection of human beings? Does my devotion make me fail to see their flaws?
There is a degree to which the object of loyalty undeniably matters. Loyalty to an evil object may be morally worse than disloyalty. But there is also a degree to which loyalty is unavoidable. As humans, we will always put our allegiance somewhere, even if it is only in ourselves. Therefore we must choose our loyalties wisely, to the degree that they can be chosen.
Furthermore, there is also something to be said for the value of consistency–a loyalty that is not based on merits, but simply on being. And this is the concept that transformed the way I consider my relationship to my country.
It remains true that loyalty is fundamentally based on preference, which is to some degree irrational. At times, it runs uncomfortably counter to the universalist ethic of cosmopolitanism. In his essay “The Patriotic Idea,” G.K. Chesterton affirms the moral reality of universal human dignity while critiquing the real-world implementation of this ideal. Chesterton argues that this vague affection for “humanity” fails to actually love real people, “ceasing to be human in the effort to be humane.”
Indeed, Chesterton affirms the value of loving preferentially, because this allows us to love practically. While distinctions may be protested if there is something wrong in one side or the other, they should never be protested merely “because the distinctions are distinctions.” Rather, Chesterton claims, loyalty eventually achieves universality, because “by means of it all things are loved adequately, because all things are loved individually.”
When it comes to love of country, I had viewed loyalty as divisive. Under Chesterton’s paradigm, however, we are more united when we all love different things than when we all hate the one thing.
The obvious objection to Chesterton’s defense of particular rather than universal love is that preferences will unavoidably conflict. This problem is evident in nations: the insistence that one mode of governance is superior to another has resulted in devastating, violent conflict. While Chesterton acknowledges that “men will always fight about the things they care for,” he claims that true loyalty can transcend this instinct, not because it is mitigated with the rational observation that another person’s loyalty may be just as earnest, but because loyalty is so deeply rooted that victory or loss would not change convictions. For example, I believe my mom is the greatest mom in the world, but I’m not going to fight you if you think yours is better — not because I concede your conclusion is legitimate, but because losing won’t change either of our minds.
Moreover, loving universally means loving vaguely, and as Chesterton points out, loving vaguely allows us to overlook the uncomfortable realities of good and bad. In fact, this is the very flaw that some contemporary American patriots fall into. Overgeneralization can be an escape from the cognitive dissonance of recognizing the mixed history of our country, complete with its triumphs and shortfalls.
Thus, my second initial objection to national loyalty, that emotional affection can blind us to our country’s flaws, is answered. The detachment from reality comes not from loving the country too much, but from loving it too shallowly. In his book “The Nature of Love,” German philosopher Dietrich von Hildebrand points out that real love is not ignorant of the beloved’s flaws, much less indifferent to them. Rather, love sees the flaws of the other as a momentary “lack of faithfulness to his true character” and desires to see him improved.
So too with our love of country. Ignoring the evil and injustice of the United States is not an act of loyalty, but of selfishness, seeking to continue to place hope in an imaginary ideal rather than striving in love to improve what truly exists. Real loyalty does not run from flaws, but faces them honestly.
For me, this transformed the very notion of what loyalty is from a passive affection to a motivated devotion. This true loyalty is not the cause of today’s divisive rhetoric, blind partisanship, and cynical contempt. In fact, I believe it has the potential to be the solution to it.
Progress is not found in bitterness, hatred, or contempt. It is only once we find what is in our country to love that we can really work to improve the rest.
Breanna Beers is a recent graduate of Cedarville University. She was a participant in the 2021 Summer Honors Program course “May We Love Our Country? Political Loyalty and the Christian Faith,” taught by Dr. Peter Meilaender.