This weekend, we Americans celebrate 234 years of national independence. For most of that time, we rejoiced that two broad oceans protected us from foreign wars and enemies. No more: The terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, removed forever any doubt on that score.
What is the appropriate response? To that question there is no lack of answers — but in the end, they come down to two. The first is nationalism; the second seems similar, but is in reality quite different: patriotism.
A spokesman for nationalism is the American naval hero Stephen Decatur. Born in Maryland as the son of a naval officer in 1779, he entered the navy himself at age 19. In 1804, when only 25, he commanded an American warship that sailed into the harbor of Tripoli in North Africa, where the U.S. frigate Philadelphia had been captured after running aground. To prevent those who had taken the ship from enjoying their prize, Decatur set the frigate afire and bombarded the town. This was the first of many similar exploits that, in the words of his biographer, earned Decatur a reputation for “reckless bravery and stubborn patriotism.” He was certainly reckless. He died in 1820, when only 41, from wounds suffered in a duel: an attempt to prove who was “right” at the point of a gun — something not merely reckless but insane.
Decatur is best remembered for his celebrated toast at a banquet in Norfolk, Virginia: “Our country! In her intercourse with foreign nations, may she always be in the right; but our country, right or wrong.” That is a classic expression of nationalism. Nationalism recognizes no standard higher than that of one’s own country. It finds expression today in the mindless simplicity of the bumper sticker: “America. Love it or leave it!”
Nationalists repudiate any suggestion that criticism of one’s country might be an expression of love for country — for failing to live up to the highest and best in its history and tradition. Few forces in the world today are more destructive of peace and happiness than nationalism — the exalting of one’s own country over all others, regardless of the cost in human misery and suffering.
Patriotism, on the other hand, is love of one’s country not because it is in every respect “best,” and certainly not because it always has been or always will be “right” — but simply because it is ours. That is how parents love their children. It is how patriots love their country. We find an example of such patriotism in the German-American Carl Schurz.
Born in Cologne, Germany, in 1829, he came to this country in 1852. An admirer of Abraham Lincoln, Schurz fought for the Union in our Civil War, rising to the rank of major general. From 1869 to 1875, Schurz was one of Missouri’s two senators in Washington, where he opposed the punitive “Reconstruction” policy imposed on the South by his own party after the Civil War. Taught as a boy at his Jesuit school in Cologne that there is a higher law that stands above all human laws and judges them, Schurz believed — like his fallen hero, Lincoln — that this higher law required not punishment for the southern states but reconciliation, to bind up the nation’s wounds.
In a Senate speech, Schurz quoted Stephen Decatur’s words and corrected them. “Our country, right or wrong! When right, to be kept right; when wrong to be put right!” That is the voice of patriotism, which is a Christian virtue. Nationalism, which is pride on a public scale, is incompatible with Christian and Catholic faith.
On Independence Day, we need to recall that, as Catholic Christians, we have dual citizenship. We are citizens of our country, which we love because it is ours. But we are citizens also of a higher realm: the invisible and spiritual kingdom of heaven. As citizens of our country, we work with all people of good will for justice and peace: in our community, in our nation, and in the world. As citizens of God’s kingdom, we acknowledge a higher law than those made by legislatures or Congress. When those human laws command — or, as in the case of abortion, when they permit — what God’s law forbids, we respond as the apostle Peter responded to the unjust commands of authority in his day: “We must obey God rather than men” (Acts 5:29).
Appeal to this higher law evokes today the angry protest that it amounts to imposing our special morality on a pluralistic society. Slaveholders brought the same charge in the 1850s against those who wanted to abolish slavery. “We’re not forcing you to own slaves,” the slaveholders said. “But don’t force your special morality on us.” Those who call themselves “pro-choice” make the same argument today. We have all seen the bumper stickers that say: “Against abortion? Don’t have one.” Would those who display that slogan put a sticker on their cars saying: “Against slavery? Don’t own one”? We are ashamed today of laws that permitted slaveholders to treat human beings as property. The day will come when we will be no less ashamed of laws that permit us to treat unborn babies as disposable bits of tissue that can be cut out like an appendix and thrown away.
Our noble Declaration of Independence lists first among those truths that it calls “self-evident” the “right to life.” Defending this right for all — not just for the strong, the healthy, and the self-sufficient, but also for the unborn, the aged, and the gravely ill — earns us today the scorn and hatred of people who consider themselves sophisticated and enlightened. That is reason neither for surprise nor for discouragement. The Master who made us His own in baptism was Himself hated and scorned by the enlightened sophisticates of His day. “In the world you have tribulation,” He assures us, “but be of good cheer, I have overcome the world” (Jn 16:33).