American Patriotism: A View from Abroad


Growing up in Massachusetts, I naturally imbibed a patriotic atmosphere. In the movies I was treated to the foot-tapping music of George M. Cohan performed with patriotic gusto by the inimitable Jimmy Cagney. In school, we were obliged to memorize Sit Walter Scott's "The Lay of the Last Minstrel". The intimidating power of the opening lines has never left me.

The good citizens of Cromwell, CT have the sound patriotic sense to celebrate Memorial Day each year on May 30. They are more interested in honoring those who fought and died for their country on a specifically designated date rather than shifting Memorial Day to a Monday thereby inviting the convenience of an extended weekend to obscure what they need to remember. The purest way of honoring those who suffered the supreme inconvenience — death on the battlefield — must include the acceptance of the very minor inconvenience of celebrating Memorial Day on whatever day it happens to fall.

I was in this charming New England town on Memorial Day, enjoying the festivities, which included a lavish parade and a spate of patriotic speeches. As I sat on the green, amidst marching bands that were now no longer marching, a journalist was moving through the crowd collecting comments for a newspaper article. The day's festivities provided me with a most agreeable spectacle, and I began to formulate in my mind what I might say to the roving reporter if he requested a statement from me. He passed me by, however, more eager to solicit comments from others in the crowd. I was prepared to tell him that I was an American citizen who had been living in Canada for some time and that I felt privileged to witness the big heart of small-town America as it celebrated with unabashed pride, the love and loyalty it held for its homeland. I felt my own sense of patriotism blending with the display of patriotism expressed by all those around me. I wanted to tell my itinerant reporter that from my "perspective from abroad," so to speak, not only was I sharing the patriotic fervor that others were experiencing, but I wanted to compliment them on what they were doing. I was a co-celebrant, yet my status as an outsider allowed me to see them as a whole and affirm them from the outside. For me, it was a moment of patriotic fervor tinged with the poignancy of living abroad and not being allowed to share fully what my American compatriots were enjoying as full-fledged American citizens. It was just a little bit like crashing a wedding, even though one was a distant relative of the bride and groom.

Growing up in Massachusetts, I naturally imbibed a patriotic atmosphere. In the movies I was treated to the foot-tapping music of George M. Cohan performed with patriotic gusto by the inimitable Jimmy Cagney: "I'm a Yankee Doodle Dandy/ A Yankee Doodle do or die/ A real live nephew of my Uncle Sam's/ Born on the Fourth of July." In school, we were obliged to memorize Sit Walter Scott's "The Lay of the Last Minstrel". The intimidating power of the opening lines has never left me:

Breathes there a man with soul so dead,
Who never to himself hath said,
This is my own, my native land!

Not wanting to grow up with a dead soul, I resolved that I had better become patriotic. This felt obligation to be patriotic enveloped us. Even in Latin class, we were reminded that "It is sweet and fitting to die for one's country" (Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori). I knew I had a lot of work to do before I became truly patriotic.

Portraits of Presidents Lincoln and Washington hung from the walls of seemingly every classroom. We learned much about these great American heroes, and were especially grateful to them when school closed on their respective birthdays every February. Now, of course, we have something called "President's Day" which is better identified with automobile sales and a long weekend than with the 1st and 16th presidents of the United States. "Lincoln" seems, in the minds of many, to be the brand name of a car, while we dare not violate the canons of political correctness by referring to Washington as the "Father of our Country" lest we arouse the sinister specter of "patriarchy".

Patriotism had reached a low ebb. If it was not dead, it was at least moribund. We supposed that we were living in a "global village". If patriotism was not linked to patriarchy, it was atavistic, sentimental, misguided, unpost-modern. Courts ruled that it was permissible to burn flags or wear them as apparel. The flag could not be defiled because patriotism was no longer a viable concept.

But 9/11 changed all that. Suddenly stores could not stock enough American flags. It became clear that America was a country whose citizens abounded with determination, strength, resilience, courage, compassion, generosity, and hope. To borrow Edmund Burke's word, America had suddenly become "lovely" again. Patriotism was reborn. And in its new incarnation, it seemed stronger than ever. "God Bless America" could not be heard often enough, either as a patriotic song or as the closing line of a patriotic speech.

Why is it, we must ask, that patriotism goes in and out of style? What accounts for its dramatic ebbs and flows? If patriotism is good, indeed, even a great virtue, it should transcend style and be an ever-present expression of a legitimate love and loyalty to one's homeland.

Words, as T. S. Eliot has reminded us, "slip, slide, perish/ Decay with imprecision, will not stay in place,/ Will not stay still." Patriotism is continuously being confused with religion, on the one hand, and nationalism on the other.

Dr. Samuel Johnson once remarked that "patriotism is the last refuge of a scoundrel." The American philosopher, Ralph Barton Perry had an insightful response: "If patriotism is 'the last refuge of a scoundrel,' it is not merely because evil deeds may be performed in the name of patriotism . . . but because patriotic fervor can obliterate moral distinctions altogether." Let us make the relevant moral distinctions.

  1. Patriotism is not Religion:

    Pope Leo XIII, in his encyclical Sapientiae Christianae, stated, "We are bound to love dearly the country whence we have received the means of enjoyment this mortal life affords, but we have a much more urgent obligation to love with ardent soul the Church to which we owe the life of the soul, a life that will endure forever." Pope Leo's remark is in accord with Christ's injunction to "render to Caesar the things that are Caesar's; and to God the things that are God's" (Mk 12:17). Similarly, Nobel Laureate Rabindranath Tagore has a character in his novel, The Home and the World, denounce the identification of patriotism with religion. "I am willing," says Nikhil, "to serve my country; but my worship I reserve for Right which is far greater than my country. To worship my country as a god is to bring a curse upon it." Stephen Decatur's deathless phrase, "our country right or wrong," is a temptation to elevate patriotism to the level of religion.

  2. Patriotism is not Nationalism:

    The great Christian existentialist, Nikolai Berdyaev, draws attention to the vital difference between the nation, which is a product of history and civilization, and its people, which is a more primary and natural reality. The term "people is more personal than "nation," for Berdyaev, because it connotes human beings who have personalities. The concept of "nation" is more relatable to the idea of the state. "Nationalism," he writes, "is a collective egocentricity and the will power over others. Patriotism is the love of one's native land, of its soul and people." "Patriotism," he adds, as the "love for one's people is a very natural and good feeling." Nationalism, on the other hand, he warns, leads to tyranny.

    Joseph Sobran alludes to the same distinction when he argues that "while patriotism is a form of affection, nationalism, it has often been said, is grounded in resentment and rivalry . . . It is militant by nature . . . Patriotism, by contrast, is peaceful until forced to fight."

  3. Patriotism is Piety writ large:

    The word for "patriotism" derives from the Greek word for "fatherland" (patris, -idos). The virtue of patriotism is rooted in the virtue of piety, which children owe their parents. Patriotism, then, is familial piety enlarged to fit the dimensions of one's country. Because of patriotism's familial quality, a person loves his country not because it is great, but because it is his. One sees the flaws in his family (or country) and can laugh about it. It has been said that the patriotic Irishman thinks Ireland is hilarious, whereas the Irish nationalist sees nothing to laugh about. Patriotism, like piety, is rooted in love and self-identification. But it also welcomes, in fact, urges, changes for the better.

Abraham Lincoln, in his Inaugural Address (March 4, 1861) may have captured and synthesized the essential elements of patriotism — memory, heart, home, land, and being on the side of the angels — in a manner that has not yet been surpassed for either its excellence or it eloquence. He stated as follows:

The mystic chords of memory, stretching from every battlefield and patriot grave to every living heart and hearthstone all over this broad land, will yet swell the chorus of the Union, when again touched, as surely they will be by the better angels of our nature.


Donald DeMarco. "American Patriotism: A View from Abroad." National Catholic Register.

This article is reprinted with permission from Donald DeMarco and the National Catholic Register. All rights reserved.

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Donald DeMarco is Professor at Holy Apostles College and Seminary in Cromwell, CT and Professor Emeritus at St. Jerome's University in Waterloo Ontario. He has written hundreds of articles for various scholarly and popular journals, and is the author of twenty books, including The Heart of Virtue, The Many Faces of Virtue, Virtue's Alphabet: From Amiability to Zeal and Architects Of The Culture Of Death. Donald DeMarco is on the Advisory Board of The Catholic Educator's Resource Center.

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