Honest Patriotism: A distinguished Protestant theologian reflects on the spirit of liberty.
The congregational council of Detroits Bethel Evangelical Church appropriated $5 in the spring of 1918 for the purchase of an American flag to be displayed in the church sanctuary. Meanwhile, its young pastor encouraged the German immigrant church to adopt English as its language for worship. That pastor was Reinhold Niebuhr. Readers of his books, written between 1930 and 1970, are often surprised when they discover that in the midst of World War I, Niebuhr praised patriotism and urged his congregants to love America enough to fight for its democratic ideals. In his essay Love of Country (published in April 1918), he concedes nations have often misused the loyal services of their citizens, but writes that patriotism is something sublime and noble. A man must be dead of soul indeed if he has no love for the land of his birth or adoption.
Niebuhr was about to be disillusioned, however, by the uses to which Allied politicians put their victory over Germany. A few years later he would become Americas preeminent modern theological critic of citizens who mix the God of love and the God of battles. For the next 50 years, until his death in 1971, Niebuhr would tilt against nationalistic self-righteousness in all its guises. I think he would have agreed with the late William Sloane Coffin Jr.s succinct analysis in Credo (2004): There are three kinds of patriots, two bad, one good. The bad are the uncritical lovers and the loveless critics. Good patriots carry on a lovers quarrel with their country, a reflection of Gods lovers quarrel with all the world.
We Americans have never found such distinctions easy to observe. Back in the 1830s, Alexis de Tocqueville complained that Americans stiffen at all foreign criticisms. He accused us of irritable patriotism, as though we were not secure enough in our new nationhood to admit that some features of our culture deserved criticism.
In that tradition our president rushed to remind us after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, that a good America was under attack. Our secretary of defense soon dismissed the resistance of an old Europe to American preparation for war. Floods of flags covered our land. Journalists, academics and religious leaders were asked to defend freedom by closing ranks against a hostile world. We ended up with the U.S.A. Patriot Act, which defends freedom by restricting it.
A German Perspective on Flag Waving
As we celebrate Independence Day on July 4 this year, two memories shadow my citizen-concern for these events. The first relates to the native country of Niebuhrs parents. In early 1999 I was invited to a high school history class in an upper-class suburb of Berlin. I asked the class about their study of the Nazi era and whether they felt well informed about the Holocaust. Of course! they replied. We study it three times, in grades 4, 8 and 12. We study it so much that some of us have had it up to here with the Holocaust! I asked them if they still felt that they could be patriotic Germans. Some replied that they preferred to identify themselves as Europeans. Two told stories of summers spent in the United States. Our high school peers in America asked us questions like, Do you know what a swastika is? It took us a while to realize that what they call a swastika we call a Hackenkreuz. It really annoyed us. Know what it is! Do you think our schools have not drummed into us the history of Nazism? Our trouble with the American students we met is that they dont seem worried at all those flags on July 4, all those marching bands and speeches! It reminded us of the Nazis. In other words, German high school students are better educated than American students about the dangers of supernationalism and its symbols. Mass display of American flags on July 4 worries them.
An American instinct rose in me at this point in the conversation. I wanted to say to them, Oh, you know it is much more innocent than that. We just cheer the veterans marching down main street and then we go off to a picnic in the park. But I held my tongue, just listening. Afterward I thought of German friends who visit our summertime church in upstate New York. They come into the sanctuary of that 200-year-old building, see the American flag there, and ask, Why? I try to answer by telling them about Niebuhrs move in 1918 to buy that flag. I say that these particular flags were gifts to our church in memory of one of its deceased members. Then I say, As an ecumenical Christian, I have protested against having that flag here. But most folk in this Presbyterian congregation feel little tension between their patriotism and their faith. My German visitors reply, Yes, that was how it was with us in the 1930s. I am glad now to tell such visitors that the church decided to move that flag from the front to the back of the sanctuary.
A second, post-9/11 memory still haunts me. It was May 2004. We were in the lecture hall of Manhattans Riverside Church and had just viewed Martin Doblmeiers superb documentary film on the life and death of Dietrich Bonhoeffer. A panel of us discussed the question: Are American Christians faced now with a Bonhoeffer moment? Does our faith now require us to defend our countrys democracy against its current government? The panel discussed the question pro and con, distinguishing and relating Germany in the thirties and America post-9/11. Then, as the meeting was about to close, a tall elderly man in the audience stood up and said, I am a survivor of Auschwitz. I do not believe that the United States is yet at a Bonhoeffer moment. I believe that we are at 1932. It was a testimony so worth respecting that we did not discuss it. We just let it shadow our thoughts on our way home.
Soon after this sobering event, I referred to it in another conversation in Berlin, this time in a living-room gathering of Protestant church leaders. They replied, We Germans know how fragile democracy can be, but we have enough confidence in American political institutions to believe that your country will curb excesses of governmental power. I had to smile at the irony of modern day Germans encouraging Americans to have more confidence in their democratic system. Reinhold Niebuhr would have loved that moment.
Rightly or wrongly, in post-9/11 America, lots of us are wondering whether critical love is losing out to uncritical love in current public talk about patriotism. We so easily forget the Alien and Sedition Act of 1798, the illegal and aggressive Mexican War of 1846, Lincolns abrogation of habeas corpus during the Civil War, the Palmer Raids of 1919 and the internment of 120,000 Japanese Americans in 1942all under presidents famous for democratic patriotism but responsive to popular public willingness to stretch law, constitution and ethics to protect the nation.
Irritable Patriotism Today?
Not long ago a Syrian said to Lawrence Wright, the author of The Looming Tower: A History of Al Qaeda (2006): I live in a police state. Now you do too. Such an anecdote inclines me to feel as defensive as I felt in that Berlin high school classwere not yet that bad! July 4 is not a Nuremburg rally. We still have our democratic freedoms! Who are foreigners to think otherwise? Yet suddenly I come up short. Shades, in me, of irritable patriotism?
Recently I had a sobering parallel conversation with a naturalized American citizen born in Eastern Europe. He had fled a real police state 20 years ago and mentioned his experience of Americans as being not very understanding of other peoples viewpoints. I used to comment to American friends about it, but since 9/11 I have kept quiet about any criticisms I may have about this country. I am proud to be a citizen here, but I look like an Eastern European. I can easily be mistaken for a foreigner. Frankly, since 9/11, I am afraid to speak my mind to most people here.
I wanted to say to him, If we dont use our freedoms in this country, we may find them likely to be disappear. You must join the rest of us in speaking our minds. It would have been my patriotic reply. But these days, who am I to quiet his fears of being accused of being a disloyal American?
Last year, another friend went to the airport, tried to check his bags at the curb, was refused, then tried to use the automatic ticket machine, and was refused again. At the counter he asked why. I dont know, says the clerk. Maybe someone with your name is on a computer list. Maybe its because your birthday, I see, is July 4. Baffled by that speculation, my friend said sadly, Its so irrational. It doesnt seem to be the country in which I was born.
Leadership for Liberty
The country into which I was born had a president who, in his 1933 inaugural address, said, The only thing we have to fear is fear itself. It is time to apply his words to the fears our own politicians use in order to put us on alert. In human collectives, fear can morph into paranoia and abandonment of citizen protections against uses of government power unwarranted by a democratic constitution. When that happens, some branch of government had better reassert democracy against its internal enemies.
One of those branches is the courts. Most of us think of Lincoln as the greatest of our presidents, but his abrogations of habeas corpus during the Civil War were struck down by the 1866 Supreme Court, which commented:
When peace prevails, and the authority of government is undisputed, there is no difficulty in preserving the safeguards of liberty....but if society is disturbed by civil commotionif the passions of men are aroused and the restraints of law are weakened, if not disregardedthese safeguards need, and should receive, the watchful care of those entrusted with the guardianship of the Constitution and laws. In no other way can we transmit to posterity unimpaired the blessings of liberty.
Happy the republic whose leaders remember and repeat such words to a fearful electorate. One of Americas troubles this July 4 is that the sober wisdom of such words does not often grace either religious or political speech. But there are exceptions. When we Protestants are widely imagined as being under the tent of supernationalistic evangelicals, it is heartening to note that in the summer of 2005, the editor of the conservative journal Christianity Today published the following crucial theological distinctions between the Christian faith and faith in America:
George W. Bush is not Lord. The Declaration of Inde-pendence is not an infallible guide to Christian faith and practice.... The American flag is not the Cross. The Pledge of Allegiance is not the Creed. God Bless America is not the Doxology. Sometimes one needs to state the obviousespecially at times when its less and less obvious.
Americans need politicians and religious leaders willing to recall publicly the misuses of power in American history and also the present danger of defending against our enemies at the cost of imitating them. We can be proud of much in our history, but we will always need public leaders capable of mixing pride with humility, celebration with repentance.
That combination of virtues, I believe, is one we Christians should try to inject into our culture. Isnt Independence Day supposed to be an occasion of rededication to liberty and justice for all? Perhaps by promoting humility and repentance in the face of claims of national goodness, we can begin to become what Jesus called us, the salt of the earth.
In 1944 the U.S. Court of Appeals judge Learned Hand described the spirit of liberty as the spirit that is not too sure it is right. In saying that, he was not far from a Christian vision of a kingdom in which God alone is unambiguously good. Only in that certainty ought Christians to wish their neighbors a happy Fourth of July.