We the People

Excerpted From How to Be a Patriotic Christian By Richard Mouw Tags: IVP, patriotism It is impossible to imagine being a patriotic American without joining in the songs that express affection for our country. In getting ready to start writing here about patriotism, I read through the lyrics of the best known of these songs. […]

Excerpted From

How to Be a Patriotic Christian

By Richard Mouw

Tags: IVP, patriotism

It is impossible to imagine being a patriotic American without joining in the songs that express affection for our country. In getting ready to start writing here about patriotism, I read through the lyrics of the best known of these songs. I wanted to make sure I understood what we are being affectionate about when we sing these songs.

I have a reputation for quoting lines from hymns in making theological points. I pay close attention to the sentiments conveyed in hymns. Sometimes without realizing it we utter words expressing profound theological insights in our singing.

At other times we express thoughts or principles in our singing that are spiritually or theologically questionable. For example, I love “What a Friend We Have in Jesus,” but there is one line that bothers me: “We should never be discouraged.” Really? Did the person who wrote that line ever read the Psalms? Or is it good theology to say of the baby Jesus that “no crying he makes” when he lies in the manger?

So for me it is a helpful exercise to pay attention to what feelings about our country we reveal when we sing American patriotic songs. In going through many of them with care recently I came up with three themes that stood out.

One theme is the love for the beauty of our natural resources: “purple mountain majesties” and “rocks and rills.” A second is the affectionate memories of our national past: our national anthem is about seeing the American flag still waving “in the dawn’s early light” over Fort McHenry after a night of bombardment during a battle in the War of 1812. Our love for the “land of the pilgrim’s pride” is tied to the quest for religious freedom that brought many to our national shores. Third, and most important, are the national ideals that have shaped the American experience: “liberty in law,” “crown thy good with brotherhood,” “let freedom ring.”

Each of these themes deserves our affection. There is much to sing about in our national parks. There are stories about our past that inform and inspire. And the U.S. Constitution points beyond itself to enduring ideals—“Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness”—that shape the bond that is meant to unite us as a people.

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There are American political leaders whom I strongly dislike, and there are policies and laws that I personally oppose. Often what I sing in affectionate songs about the United States sets forth nicely the convictions and concerns that inform my political discontent. For example, it is because I love our fruited plains that I want to challenge some of our agricultural regulations. I get upset when stories about our national past get distorted. I want our ideals applied to all our citizens.

The three themes that characterize our patriotic songs are important to our collective sense of being a nation. The affection they express is not typically directed to political offices and policies. Those are associated with the state that governs our nation.

Being patriotic is much more about having an affection for the nation rather than for the state. We can see this clearly in our patriotic songs. For one thing, they are most frequently sung in nonpolitical settings: athletic events, concerts, school classrooms, community organizations, Scout camps, military academies. And these songs are in turn connected to many other “peoplehood” phenomena: parades, city parks, monuments, flags, pledges, portraits of past leaders, national holidays and civic celebrations—and more. All of this is meant to sustain an enduring experience of national identity.

Political scientists have engaged in considerable debate over the meaning of nation in contrast to state. Here are some quick thoughts about what most of them agree on. A state is a governmental system that has authority over a territory with definable boundaries. Within that territory it governs by means of a system of laws that is managed by persons in offices and roles on different levels of association (states, provinces, cities, towns). It has standards for defining citizenship and typically supports its operations by some form of taxation. It also normally manages a currency system. And it has a structure for treaties and patterns of interaction with other states.

Again, this is fairly technical, which makes the point that it is difficult to talk about what a state does in a way that evokes affectionate feelings on our part. We can certainly feel blessed by an overall pattern of government. We can love and honor our U.S. Constitution, but we don’t sing affectionate songs about, say, our national postal system or our city’s zoning laws.

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A nation is less easy to define, but we can say this much: a nation is a community of people who experience some kind of unity, based on shared memories of our collective past and some cultural practices and loyalties that we have in common. As citizens of a nation, we have at least a loosely defined sense of who “we” are. Sometimes, of course, the sense of collective identity is reinforced by perverse notions of what it means to be “we.” But at its best a national identity is based on a common language and a commitment to the ideals of justice and civility.

This “we-ness” is expressed in some public ceremonial practices. I experienced it at Dodger Stadium, when the national anthem was played at the beginning of a baseball game. During those brief moments I glanced down the row at the other fans. We were all standing with our hands on our hearts—this was not a time when people were kneeling in protest!—and many were singing. The diversity in this particular row was striking: women, men, and children of several ages and ethnicities. All of them had a look of reverence on their faces as they directed their eyes toward the flag.

What were they revering as they paused for a patriotic moment in Dodger Stadium? Surely they did not have in mind particular governmental leaders—I think we could have gotten some passionate political arguments going in that group under different circumstances. Nor were they thinking specific thoughts about philosophies of government. Actually, I suspect they were not thinking anything. They were doing what citizens of the United States simply do in brief ceremonial moments. We engage in ritualized actions whose purpose is to reinforce a sense of unity amid considerable diversity.

In my stadium experience we did not know each other, but we were acknowledging in our actions that we had something important in common, a civic kinship.

Casual, friendly interactions in the public square are good for reminding us of our sense of peoplehood, but they are not enough. We need to work at keeping the sense of peoplehood alive, and this requires an active “schooling” in the ways of citizenship.

Excerpted from How to Be a Patriotic Christian by Richard Mouw. Copyright (c) 2022 by Richard Mouw. Published by InterVarsity Press, Downers Grove, IL. IVPress.com