Guest Post: “Why I’d Rather Live Without American Patriotism”Posted: January 3, 2013
American patriotism is something that can confuse us Europeans. So in order to find out more about the origins of the phenomenon I invited American freelance writer Jessica McMann to write this guest post. With holymansam readers coming from both sides of the Atlantic, I’m looking forward to a lively discussion in the comments below! Over to you, Jessica…
American patriotism is perhaps one of the world’s best known brands. Of course, every country the world over, to a greater or lesser extent, practices patriotism. But in America, patriotism takes on a uniquely consumerist and religious character that the entire world at once recognizes and also finds a bit baffling. In our globalized, ostensibly post-nationalist world, it would seem that patriotism has become some quaint anachronism. Yet it’s alive and well in America.
Of course, this isn’t to say that every American trumpets the American brand or proselytizes American exceptionalism. In fact, I’d say most of the people who I know are prouder and more forthcoming about their “ancestry” (i.e., “I’m half Irish, a quarter Scottish, part German,” etc.) even if said ancestry is so far generationally removed as to be basically meaningless.
Still, in certain parts of the country, particularly the American South, declaring proudly that one is an American, whether through actual speech, through flags, or with bumper stickers is very commonplace. These American patriots, often caricatured, tend toward religious conservatism. They’re the “Tea Party” you may have heard of, and they’re raison d’etre is to derive their identities as Americans through moral and/or religious outrage, coupled with nostalgia for a certain, not wholly accurate, version of the American past.
Having grown up in small-town Texas, I confronted this type of patriotism nearly every single day. In the days following the September 11 attacks, our neighborhood had an unspoken “who-can-buy-and-display-the-biggest-flag” competition. Pledging allegiance to the American flag occurred during nearly every school function or event that I can recall. Gun ownership, a rather peculiar aspect of American culture, was constantly invoked as a “freedom” that the “Founding Fathers” sought to guarantee, even though the real story is a lot more complicated than all that.
In order to really understand how American patriotism came about in the first place, it’s important to understand how and under what circumstances this country was founded. As Frederick Edwords points out in his essay “The Religious Character of American Patriotism,” America is an historical anomaly in that it had no unifying, monolithic cultural tradition upon being founded.
America began as a refuge for various religious, mostly Christian sects, and perhaps the one thing that united this rather diverse group was a shared hatred of England. Still, hatred of another country is not nearly enough to unite a nation. Without a common religion, Americans had to invent one. And so we have American patriotism, an essentially religious tradition, with its own mythology, the most basic story being the overcoming of adversity and class distinctions through hard work.
Seen through this light, American patriotism is difficult to merely dismiss as an outgrowth of ignorance and bigotry, as so many Europeans do. While younger, urban, educated Americans find overt expressions of patriotism to be embarrassing and in poor taste, it seems that, in one way or another, we nonetheless still cling to the idea that America is a place where anyone can “follow their dreams.” This is not to say, of course, that American patriotism can’t be dangerous, in the same way that all religious dogmatism can be dangerous.
As someone who derives her identity as a Christian, as a member of a local community, as a citizen of the world, and as an American, I see our country’s patriotism as the most limiting way to define oneself. No matter what your views on Christianity, one cannot deny that Christian principles, as taught by Christ, are universal and inherently inclusive. American patriotism, on the other hand, is by its very nature exclusionary. In its worst modes of expression, American patriotism becomes an excuse for bigotry, for domination of the weaker, and for alienation of the Other.
Keeping this in mind, it may seem strange that so many who are outwardly patriotic in America tend to be devout Christians. But when we remember that American patriotism and religion are historically so closely intertwined, it all makes sense. We Americans are not, as a whole, crazy, nor do most of us believe America is necessarily the greatest country on earth. Patriotism is just part of our culture, a part that—in all honesty—I’d much rather live without.
Jessica McMann is a freelance writer whose primary interests are religious studies, education, and personal/professional development. You can check out more of her writing at www.ChristianColleges.com, a site dedicated to Christian education resources. Jessica welcomes your comments below!