New York Senator Roscoe Conkling, a scion of the Gilded Age, is not ordinarily remembered in American history as a moral philosopher. But his gloss on a more-famous critique if patriotism is worth recalling: “When Dr. Johnson said that ‘Patriotism is the last refuge of a scoundrel,’ he overlooked the possibilities of Reform.” Conkling’s complaint, made after President Garfield had rejected the Senator’s patronage nominee for Collector of the Port of New York, seems curiously relevant to our own times.
For patriotism is largely deprecated as a moral value today, and precisely in the name of “Reform.” Not all of those who question the blind patriotism of bygone days are scoundrels, of course, for there is much in our past over which we should examine our conscience. Immigrant American Catholics, eager to refute nativist charges of “divided loyalty,” often outdid the WASPs in the fervor of their Americanism. Stephen Decatur’s preamble to his well-remembered statement of faith in “our country, right or wrong,” was sometimes forgotten: “Our country: in her intercourse with foreign nations may she always be in the right.” We need not yearn for a return of the days when blind loyalty to country ran the risk of overwhelming more critical moral faculties.
But that is hardly the case today. In the name of those universal moral values that shape Christian social ethics, American Catholics are now advised — from pulpits, in their schools, in the Catholic press — to treat patriotism as if it were some sort of dread disease. One suspects, in all of this, a great deal more politics than theology. The basic themes of the “patriotism is morally obtuse” school are familiar: that America is a force for evil in the world; that this is not an accident, but is the result of the way power is organized in American society; and that the corporate sector is the primary villain here, warping American foreign policy to its own selfish ends. The point to be noted is that the source of these themes is not a theological tradition, but a political tradition: specifically, the vulgarized Marxist thematics that shaped so much of the New Left analysis and ethos during Vietnam, and which have become virtually enshrined as axiomatic moral coordinates if the inheritor New Class of the 1970s and 1980s. The syndrome is at its worst in the American media (listening to Bill Moyers talk about Lebanon four hours before I wrote this provided a quintessential expression of the genie); but these basic themes have become widespread in the teaching centers of American Catholicism. The result is that patriotism is largely relegated to the dust bin of virtues.
How might we recover a nature, morally-sound patriotism that avoids both the jingoism of the past and the self-flagellation of the present? One starting point would be to admit, gratefully, that our tradition does affirm the reality of universal moral norms that transcend specific cultures and forms of political organization. Those norms make specific the core values of Judaeo-Christian social ethics. But, according to our understanding of revelation and incarnation, the universal moral values that are to shape our common life in political community do not exist as Platonic ideas, suspended gelatinously in the ether. No, according to a Catholic understanding of the means by which God speaks His word to this world, those values are mediated through the events, persons, and institutions of our lives: in history.
The core values of our social-ethical tradition stand in judgment on the institutions and persons of the present, to be sure; but these abiding truths are also revealed through the clay of this world. Some institutions are more “permeable” to the apprehension of these values than other institutions. The moral value of democracy, for example, derives in part from the fact that democratic governance fosters a moral (and pragmatic) appreciation for such central Catholic social-ethical values as personalism (i.e. human rights inhere in persons by reason of their created dignity) and pluralism. Democracy is thus a better scola for social-ethical virtues than tyranny. A mature appreciation and gratitude for democratic institutions, then, seems not only compatible with affirming the universality of moral values; such a patriotism can be the very expression of our affirmation of universal moral values and norms.
Make no doubt about it: patriotism, like other goods, can be a temptation. Cavour was right to reflect, several generations after Dr. Johnson, on “What scoundrels we would be if we did for ourselves what we are ready to do for Italy.” Patriotism has its limits; some are matters of taste (recall Bismarck’s comment on refusing a glass of German champagne: “My patriotism stops short of my stomach.”); but others are more morally substantive. We have here no earthly home, and it is a species of idolatry to identify any one political community with the Kingdom. The prolepsis, the foreshadowing, of the Kingdom is the Church, not the United States of America. But there is a large swath of terrain between hyper-patriotic idolatry and anti-patriotic masochism. Democratic institutions such as our own are not only worthy of loyalty: they are worthy of being ascribed moral merit. Their defense, and advance, is not only in our national self-interest, but in the world’s self-interest, for the lessons of pluralism-in-community we have learned here are precisely the lessons that the world needs to learn: which is a statement of fact, not of hubris, and is recognized as such by even so tough-minded an historian as William H. McNeill.
Democratic patriotism can be, then, a means of apprehending and cultivating a love for the universal moral truths that are to shape our social conscience. It is gnosticism, pure and simple, to argue that those truths can be perceived without reference to the matter of this world, to particular communities and institutions. The moral task is to affirm those revelatory communities and institutions without making idols of them. That seems much less a danger today than thirty years ago. The present danger is that a gnostic iconoclasm will carry the issue.