Mark Twain described a patriot as “the person who can holler the loudest without knowing what he is hollering about.” Something akin to that “hollering” has been happening in our country.
Patriotism is being employed as a tactic to bully and belittle others. To do so is to desecrate the virtue and significance of true patriotism, which is a sacred trust. So, how do we recognize a true patriot?
From the outset of our democracy, George Washington cautioned citizens to “guard against the impostures of pretended patriotism.” A pretended patriot exploits love of country to achieve malevolent ends, just as Hitler did in Germany. A pretended patriot ignores the truth, disrespects the press, incites fear and suspicion, and leaves no room for diversity or disagreement. A pretended patriot is someone who dodges military duty repeatedly and yet accuses others of not being patriotic.
True patriots stand for the values of life, liberty, and justice for all as set forth in our Constitution. Many citizens are passionate about the Second Amendment but do not seem equally passionate about the First Amendment that states: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press, or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.” Ironically, we seem to tolerate mass shootings better than we do peaceful protests.
When Colin Kaepernick took a knee, he exercised his constitutional right to redress a grievance. He protested to call attention to the disproportionate number of unarmed African Americans killed by police. When he protested, he did not raise his fist. He did not shout obscenities. He took a knee, a posture of respect. When people go to their houses of worship, they often kneel. Perhaps that is what a peaceful protest really is. It is a plea for justice. It is also a visible way to demonstrate one’s conscience on a public issue.
Former Secretary of State John Kerry said: “I saw courage both in the Vietnam War and in the struggle to stop it. I learned that patriotism includes protest, not just military service.” Our flag is a symbol of our values, but without those values, it is merely a banner of stars and stripes without meaning.
True patriots sacrifice self for the greater good. Laying down one’s life for one’s country is the ultimate sacrifice. Our wars have been too many and the lives lost or altered by those wars too endless to adequately give these men and women the honor they deserve. Alongside these heroes are the patriots who demonstrate personal courage and moral character by standing up for right against all odds.
Sen. Joseph McCarthy was the most formidable political power in 1950. His immoral and ruthless character assassinations based on false charges of Communist leanings devastated huge numbers of reputable citizens. Congress, afraid of him, cowered to his power and feared his wrath. Sen. Margaret Chase Smith perhaps had the least power to affect change, both as a newly elected senator and a female.
Recognizing that her speech would endanger her career and bring revenge, Smith was the first Republican to speak out against McCarthyism as a national atrocity. On the Senate floor June 1, 1950, she chastised members of her own party who were encouraging McCarthy because he was such an excellent weapon against Democrats. “I don’t want to see the Republican Party ride to political victory on the four horsemen of fear, ignorance, bigotry, and smear,” she said. “Though it might be a fleeting victory for the Republican Party, it would be a more lasting defeat for the American people.” Smith concluded by reading a Declaration of Conscience. She said, in part, “Those of us who shout the loudest about Americanism in making character assassinations are all too frequently those who, by our own words and acts, ignore some of the basic principles of Americanism.”
True patriots are dedicated to unity. Divide and conquer is not the way to form a more perfect union. It is the way to destroy a democracy. We are abandoning our allies and forfeiting our leadership in the world, especially in the areas of climate change and diplomacy. We are fostering ignorance instead of understanding. We are jeopardizing our democratic right to vote by gerrymandering electoral districts and by disenfranchising voters. We are modeling hatred instead of goodwill. We are accelerating religious, racial, and sexual abuse. We are cultivating discord, not unity.
Let us begin again to practice true patriotism. Let us return to the core values of life, liberty and justice for all. Let us have the courage to put the common good before our personal gain. Let us build a unity that respects and protects our citizens and our planet. William Faulkner said, “Never be afraid to raise your voice for honesty and truth and compassion against injustice and lying and greed. If people all over the world would do this, it would change the earth.”
Linda E. Jordan has a Doctor of Ministry degree from San Francisco Theological Seminary. She is an ordained American Baptist Minister and a Chaplain, Colonel, USAFR (Retired).