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Nationalism vs. Patriotism

03/11/2013 Comments (43)

So a week or two ago, Rush Limbaugh announced that "For the first time, I'm ashamed of my country." 

I couldn't help thinking, "Really?  For the first time? Not for Know Nothing assaults on Catholics?  Or slavery?  Or the KKK?  Not for Hiroshima?  Or Dresden?  Or Jim Crow?  Or Roe?  Or torture? Or bailouts for bankers who used the money to give themselves huge bonuses? Or the popularity of disco, Jersey Shore, Jerry Springer and Sex and the City?  You're only now finding something in our country to feel ashamed of?"

In a curious way, it was a statement that placed him in company with one of the last people on earth he or anyone else would associate him with: Michelle Obama.  Why? Because in sort of mirror universe way, she once remarked "For the first time in my adult lifetime, I’m really proud of my country, and not just because Barack has done well, but because I think people are hungry for change."  Similarly, I thought, "Really?  For the first time, you are proud of your country?  Because they are voting for your husband?  That's what it takes to make you proud?  Somebody giving you virtually limitless power?  Not the Declaration of Independence?  The Constitution?  Thomas Edison?  George Washington Carver?  Making it through the Depression without sliding into fascist or communist totalitarianism?  Liberating the Hitler's Europe?  Huge material prosperity?  Putting a man on the Moon?  The March on Washington? Helping to bring down communism without massive bloodshed?  Giving you a college education, a shot at becoming a multimillionaire, and a media darling?  All of that is chopped liver and only your being handed the White House is the criterion for love of country?"

I can't help thinking of Chesterton talking about real patriotism vs. the sort of self-centered nationalist pride exhibited, in their own unique ways, by both Mrs. Obama and Rush Limbaugh.  Chesterton, who famously observed that saying "My country, right or wrong" is like saying, "My mother, drunk or sober" would have laughed heartily at Rush Limbaugh only now discovering that America has flaws to be ashamed of.  He would have laughed even harder that, for Limbaugh, those flaws are primarily centered around questions of the budget and not matters of the heart.  And he would have laughed hardest of all at the spectacle of a presidential candidate's wife making "whether or not the American people crown my husband with the Presidency" the sole criterion of love of country.  That's because pride is always something to be laughed at and nationalism is nothing but pride.

Chesterton had deep contempt for nationalism because Chesterton was a Christian and knew that nationalism is to a people what the sin of pride is to a person.  Like pride, it is a demonic parody of love.  Chesterton loved England with patriotic fervor, but despised nationalism because he knew it was the enemy of healthy love of country.  Nationalism tends to love country for various reasons having to do with power, greatness, might, the ability to dominate others, etc.  As long as those reasons remain, the love of country remains.  But God help the country that disappoints the nationalist, because he will then turn on it, and often viciously, because in the end, the country was the vehicle of the nationalist's own ego and when the choice comes between loving the country and loving oneself, the egoist will choose the latter.

Chesterton, in contrast, commends patriotism, which loves one's country (that is, one's neighbor) for no reason--and most certainly not because one's neighbor deserves it.  He writes:

All optimistic thoughts about England and all pessimistic thoughts about her are alike reasons for the English patriot. Similarly, optimism and pessimism are alike arguments for the cosmic patriot.

Let us suppose we are confronted with a desperate thing--say Pimlico. If we think what is really best for Pimlico we shall find the thread of thought leads to the throne or the mystic and the arbitrary. It is not enough for a man to disapprove of Pimlico: in that case he will merely cut his throat or move to Chelsea. Nor, certainly, is it enough for a man to approve of Pimlico: for then it will remain Pimlico, which would be awful. The only way out of it seems to be for somebody to love Pimlico: to love it with a transcendental tie and without any earthly reason. If there arose a man who loved Pimlico, then Pimlico would rise into ivory towers and golden pinnacles; Pimlico would attire herself as a woman does when she is loved. For decoration is not given to hide horrible things: but to decorate things already adorable. A mother does not give her child a blue bow because he is so ugly without it. A lover does not give a girl a necklace to hide her neck. If men loved Pimlico as mothers love children, arbitrarily, because it is theirs, Pimlico in a year or two might be fairer than Florence. Some readers will say that this is a mere fantasy. I answer that this is the actual history of mankind. This, as a fact, is how cities did grow great. Go back to the darkest roots of civilization and you will find them knotted round some sacred stone or encircling some sacred well. People first paid honour to a spot and afterwards gained glory for it. Men did not love Rome because she was great. She was great because they had loved her.

I do not despise my country (that is, my neighbor) because it has much to be ashamed of, because God does not despise me though I have much to be be ashamed of. I do not love my country because it is great or powerful or just or wise, for it is often none of these things and not infrequently the opposite of these things.  I love my country because it is mine, as God has loved me because I am his.  If we stop loving America for reasons and start loving her for no reason, we will be freed to embrace the love of neighbor that is patriotism and abandon the selfishness that is nationalism. 

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About Mark Shea

Mark Shea
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Mark P. Shea is a popular Catholic writer and speaker. The author of numerous books, his most recent work is The Work of Mercy (Servant) and The Heart of Catholic Prayer (Our Sunday Visitor). Mark contributes numerous articles to many magazines, including his popular column “Connecting the Dots” for the National Catholic Register. Mark is known nationally for his one minute “Words of Encouragement” on Catholic radio. He also maintains the Catholic and Enjoying It blog. He lives in Washington state with his wife, Janet, and their four sons.