Wednesday, July 04, 2007

We must all hang together, or assuredly we shall all hang separately

Two hundred and thirty one years ago, a bunch of men gathered in Philadelphia threw down the gauntlet and called for revolution in the face of tyranny.
Prudence, indeed, will dictate that Governments long established should not be changed for light and transient causes; and accordingly all experience hath shewn, that mankind are more disposed to suffer, while evils are sufferable, than to right themselves by abolishing the forms to which they are accustomed. But when a long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing invariably the same Object, evinces a design to reduce them under absolute Despotism, it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such Government, and to provide new Guards for their future security.
It is a remarkable document, and I try and read it every year around this time.

Much continues to be written about American exceptionalism, particularly in the area of religion. One of the many things that I've noted (and find laudable) about my adopted country is the religious devotion (and seriousness and zeal) that characterizes patriotism in the United States. It never felt this way in India (though a sense of pan-Indian nationalism has clearly taken root, especially in the cities, and especially in the decade since economic liberalization) -- for instance, one would never sing the national anthem at a mere cricket game, local, national or otherwise, the way the Star Spangled Banner gets trotted out at every Little League or football game. Mark Shea remarks on this American characteristic,
Some readers may think I am being sacrilegious by speaking of the Fourth of July in religious terms, but I'm not. G.K. Chesterton (no blasphemer he) once remarked that America was "a nation with the soul of a Church" and said that it was the only country founded on a creed. I think he is dead on. We show our religious roots in every way, from our evangelistic zeal to export "the American way" to our anti-Christian zeal to press down upon the heads of every person in the world the claptrap chicanery of Hollywood and the pro-abortion fanaticism of the self-appointed "population planners." Americans always act as though they felt they were a City on a Hill, just as much as the Puritans did, even when they are pursuing the destruction of all that is holy.

Peter Berger once remarked that if India is the most religious country in the world and Sweden is the most secularized, then America could best be described as a nation of Indians ruled by Swedes.
(He goes on to excoriate the "Swedes" who would further secularize the playing field, and points to the absurdity of their claims.)

Is it appropriate for Christians to be patriotic? Jehovah's Witnesses will not sing (or stand for) the National Anthem. Many on the Left disdain patriotism, or (for some) any patriotism that is identified with the policies of this administration. (Or, in a more bizarre way, they identify this administration with the country as a whole.) St. Paul does remind us, that, ultimately, our citizenship is in heaven. And, of course, being patriotic is not the same as being blind or uncritical. And while some theologians, like that always-provocative maven at Duke, find American patriotism to be deeply disturbing (note how, in this quote, he find troublesome the exact thing that Mark Shea above identifies as a [presumably praiseworthy] characteristic of these United States) --
Hauerwas says he has no problem with a patriotism that is rooted in a specific history and land. "Patriotism in most countries is associated with thankfulness to forbearers that made life possible, to a past that has given a tradition of worth," he told the National Catholic Reporter. But he cannot be an American patriot because the "United States doesn’t want you to be loyal to a land or to a history. It wants you to be loyal to ideals. And those ideals are universal." Those ideals are also, to Hauerwas, repugnant.
-- I find myself more symphathetic with the view expressed in this piece at Christianity Today.
Philosopher Jeffrey Stout says that piety is the virtue associated with gratitude toward the sources of one's existence. Love of country can, in this sense, be seen as a form of piety. We wave the flag in gratitude for the nation in which we live and move and have our being, the geographic source and arena of our existence. Asking someone to avoid patriotism because it compromises Christian faith is like asking them to avoid demonstrating affection to their parents because that, too, can compromise their Christian faith.

Abandoning patriotism can be a rejection of our embodiment as particular human beings in a particular context. It can mark a dismissal of the kinds of natural ties that root us to family, place, and time. I am here, not there; from these parents, not those parents; living in this era, not another one. I am not a free-floating spirit but an embodied person, rooted somewhere rather than nowhere. Patriotism simply says "thank you" for, and to, the particular national community in which our bodies have been placed.
The church has a complicated task in relation to patriotism, and this collapse of any public space for patriotic displays makes that task all the harder. We need to be able to say "yes, but" to patriotism. Yes, we love our country, but we do not fully belong here or in any earthly land. Yes, we want our nation to flourish, but every human being and human community is equally precious in God's sight. Yes, we value our nation's ideals, but they are not the same thing as the message of the kingdom. Yes, God blesses America, but he blesses other nations, too.

Despite these concerns, it still seems to me that people who do not know how to demonstrate an appropriate fealty to their nation are not well positioned to learn how to transcend that loyalty for a higher one.
(The shadow side of patriotism -- jingoism, extreme nationalism and xenophobia -- are also alive and well, especially the last. I see it manifest in ways small and big, everywhere [Well, everywhere except New York City, that most un-American of American cities!], in the way in which news reports seem to care about American lives more than others, the discomfort surrounding the use of languages other than English in public, the way those who speak with an [non-American] accent are treated...) And what about patriotism for those whose bodies weren't placed here? What of those who choose to come here -- to escape oppression, to find a better life, to earn a decent living? I tend to be of the opinion that it behoves us "new Americans" to learn about the values of our adoptive country, to adapt, to grow, not in a way that eclipses where we've come from, but in a way that decisively says, "this is our new home. This is where our loyalties lie." This is, after all, what one declares when one takes the Oath of Citizenship. Of course, the world is a much smaller place, and in this era of globalization and an increasingly globalized work force (well, at least at some levels. And I suppose there is an important distinction to be made between an expatriate, and an emigrant or immigrant.), where distances are so much smaller, and especially where the "home country" is really not at all far away (I still marvel at this when I'm in Edison, NJ or Jackson Heights, Queens or on Devon St. in Chicago. And when I hear the stories of relatives who've lived here several decades. "You know, when we came over, there was no such thing as Indian stores or cheap calling cards. Now you can buy paan around the corner, or pick up the best shrikhand from the local store!), this -- the identification with the new country -- is, perhaps, even more important. Peggy Noonan writes beautifully about this in a piece in the WSJ.
The priest, a jolly young man with a full face and thick black hair, said he was new in the parish, from South America. He made a humorous, offhand reference to the fact that he was talking to longtime Americans who'd been here for ages. This made the friends and family of Anthony Coppola look at each other and smile. We were Italian, Irish, everything else. Our parents had been the first Americans born here, or our grandparents had. We had all grown up with two things, a burly conviction that we were American and an inner knowledge that we were also something else. I think we experienced this as a plus, a double gift, though I don't remember anyone saying that. When Anthony's mother or her friend, my grandmother, talked about Italy or Ireland, they called it "the old country." Which suggested there was a new one, and that we were new in it.

But this young priest, this new immigrant, he looked at us and thought we were from the Mayflower. As far as he was concerned--as far as he could tell--we were old Yankee stock. We were the establishment. As the pitcher in "Bang the Drum Slowly" says, "This handed me a laugh."

This is the way it goes in America. You start as the Outsider and wind up the Insider, or at least being viewed as such by the newest Outsiders. We are a nation of still-startling social fluidity. Anyone can become "American," but they have to want to first.
(I absolutely disagree with her sentiment that the state of things calls for a moratorium on immigration. Hardly. And, I think one definitely needs to distinguish between expatriate workers and immigrants -- those who are here in some sense temporarily, and those who want to live here. Yes, these aren't watertight categories, as our immigration laws presume, and our laws should make it much easier for the former to work in our economy. Much, much easier than now.)

Well, enough of this ramble, where I reveal myself to be something of an idealist, and certainly, a romantic. Let me end with the conclusion of the document that set things rolling, that summer day long ago.
We, therefore, the Representatives of the united States of America, in General Congress, Assembled, appealing to the Supreme Judge of the world for the rectitude of our intentions, do, in the Name, and by Authority of the good People of these Colonies, solemnly publish and declare, That these united Colonies are, and of Right ought to be Free and Independent States; that they are Absolved from all Allegiance to the British Crown, and that all political connection between them and the State of Great Britain, is and ought to be totally dissolved; and that as Free and Independent States, they have full Power to levy War, conclude Peace, contract Alliances, establish Commerce, and to do all other Acts and Things which Independent States may of right do. And for the support of this Declaration, with a firm reliance on the protection of divine Providence, we mutually pledge to each other our Lives, our Fortunes and our sacred Honor.
(PS: The words in the title of this post are attributed to Benjamin Franklin on this occasion.)

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