Fight or flight. We choose one of the two options when confronted with a dangerous circumstance. In Ukraine, we’ve seen many of its citizens bravely resist the Russian invasion. At the same time, about 3.4 million so far have taken the latter option (out of a population of 44 million), with 2 million now refugees in just the nation of Poland alone.
A recent Quinnipiac poll asked Americans to guess their response if a similar situation presented itself to us. Thirty-eight percent said they would flee while 55 percent answered that they would stay and fight.
That little more than half of our country would remain to defend America from foreign invasion is cause for grave concern. President Kennedy famously said, “Ask not what your country can do for you—ask what you can do for your country.” He knew a president needed to say it because not everyone sought to serve their political community. But he also knew that because people could be persuaded so to do, the commander-in-chief saying it mattered.
To fight for one’s country requires the virtue of patriotism. Patriotism is love, a love directed toward one’s political community. From that love springs words and deeds seeking the country’s good, even to the pain and loss of the patriot. This point distinguishes patriotism from some articulations of nationalism. Far from a virtue to be cultivated, nationalism can morph into subrational tribalism that refuses to let the particular concept of citizenship be tempered by the universal one of humanity; and to misunderstand this connection threatens to confuse might with right, blood, and soil with true justice.
Ukraine has learned that it has many patriots in its midst. Do we? We should ask how we may cultivate this virtue in our citizens as well. To cultivate, we must understand it better, especially in our American context.
Patriotism faces several potential competitors. For one, it faces competition from the self. We love ourselves and thus tend to seek our own good first and foremost. This good takes several forms. We desire our own health and safety contra the many threats of disease and violence. Humans pursue their own wealth, desiring not mere existence but a comfortable and ideally thrilling and fulfilling life. Finally, we look for fame, approval, and praise from others. The condition of our country can play into each factor. We want our country’s safety, its opulence, and its renown if we feel we partake of those national goods. Yet, what about when the country appears to prosper and certain individuals or groups do not? What if—to exacerbate the issue—such prosperity appears to come partly from its deleterious effect on particular persons or groups? Thus, we often see politicians talk about economic growth wrongly leaving certain citizens behind (most recently, we saw debates over the health risks COVID-19 presented for some persons as opposed to others).
Second, patriotism faces competition from family. The worry about this competition goes back to ancient times. Plato’s communism of wives and children in The Republic stemmed from concerns about family loyalty undermining dedication to the political community. As with the self, we feel a natural affection for our kin. In fact, one could say that love of family comes from a similar principle, for our family is an extension of ourselves. The good or even safety of parents, siblings, and children often benefits from a country’s flourishing. As with the self, however, its good may at times conflict with that of the nation. Moreover, the family comprises a potential rival institution to the state. A family contains its own leadership structure, principles, and history. While the political context does much to form these familial particulars, there are no guarantees that family values will match political priorities. Indeed, 19th-century America used this link between hearth and statehouse to justify outlawing polygamy.
Finally, we see competition from religion. This problem is more modern than ancient. The gods we worshiped were the gods of the city in many ancient polities. Christianity (and Islam), however, make universal claims to the truth of their doctrines and exclusivity to the existence of their deity. These claims cannot help but touch politics. If a universal God exists, then we owe Him ultimate obedience. This truth forever subverts the frequent move to deify human rulers. It also requires we seek not to contradict His laws to the degree we can discern them. These realities create the potential for a split between the laws of a country and “thus saith the LORD.” It also creates in the church (in our instance) another rival institution with its own rulers and rules. Piety always threatens to trump patriotism.
In America, our patriotism bears an interesting relationship to all three potential competitors. Our Founding principles include the inalienable right to life. Putting such a premium on life could undermine calls to defend America when foes threaten her. Similar concerns present themselves for family and for faith. Americans place a high value on family. Loyalty to and care for one’s own household is held up as a virtue in itself. We also have a history as a nation of mostly Christians, importing the potential friction between God’s laws and our own statutes.
That all said, we may direct all three in conformity to the virtue of patriotism. Working backward, our Declaration of Independence grounds its claims about justice and good government in the “laws of nature and of nature’s God.” We don’t treat our own laws as inherently sacred nor our rulers as divine. Instead, the natural laws instituted by our Creator form the standard by which we judge ourselves. Such a standard has comprised the best means for our own reform when we have erred, as seen in abolishing slavery and protecting the civil rights of black Americans.
Moreover, the self and the family’s good is congruent with American patriotism. The family needs the state and the state needs the family. Only through families can true patriotism and thus good citizenship be cultivated generation to generation. Only in the political community can the family receive the support and refinement it needs to truly flourish. Thus, we cannot reduce ourselves to familial enclaves nor to Plato’s all-encompassing, family destroying communism. Therefore, our patriotism seeks America’s good in part because our family’s good is so closely linked to hers. When we must seek America’s good at the expense of our own family, we do so only when our own kind runs afoul of justice and thus undermine the very conditions for familial flourishing the political community provides.
The concept of justice provides further clarity towards understanding how patriotism relates to self and family. In the age of COVID-19, we must still know that there are things worth dying for. Family certainly makes the list. But one’s country only makes the cut if there’s a sincere, deeply-planted sense of gratitude for her past, admiration of her present, and hope for her future. We see good in her through the commitment to equal rights and to liberty. We see good in her by the great deeds of past Americans whom we should seek to emulate. At the same time, we feel gratitude for how America provides the context to live out these goods. This combination of good and gratitude justifies sacrifice. It explains to us why the love that is our patriotism should be prepared to give all to a country that gave us, and our families, so much.
But we must not lose sight of our fellow citizens either. We must see our community as more than self and family. Citizenship is a bond and one that we should cherish. Rightly understood, it is a kind of friendship. Friendships involve holding common enjoyments and, at its best, friendships involve a common adherence to the good. In America, we can see our citizenship as unity in that good. It’s a unity in the equal rights of human beings; it’s a friendship dedicated to liberty seeking excellence—which is another way of saying the pursuit of happiness.
We have lost this art of citizenship as friendship. We must educate ourselves anew in the principles that bind us. We must dedicate ourselves to knowing our neighbor, respecting our American brothers and sisters both as humans and as fellow citizens. And, finally, we must act politically, exercising the arts of persuasion and discourse essential to citizen friends in a republic. Here, the love of patriotism becomes a virtue because it unites with a rational commitment to the good in the context of community.
The fact that 38 percent of our citizens would flee in an invasion is evidence we need to cultivate more authentic, genuine patriotism. We must be willing to stand and fight when called. We need more of that love that committed the Founders to stake their lives, their fortunes, and their sacred honor for the sake of America. As it has elicited the cry of “Glory to Ukraine” abroad, so patriotism must elicit a “God bless America” here.