There is part of a poem by Sir Walter Scott often titled “My Native Land.” Back when poetry was appreciated and even memorized, its first lines were well known. It went:
Breathes there the man, with soul so dead,
Who never to himself hath said,
‘This is my own, my native land!’
Scott’s insights are relevant in light of the recent controversy about football players kneeling during the national anthem. The contrast could not be greater. This great Scottish writer expresses the natural sentiments of patriotism that one’s native land typically awakens. And he questions those that do not hold their country dear.
The tone of the poem is not one of nationalism or unbalanced reverence for one’s land. Rather, it is a serene yet passionate poem that seeks to express universally known truths about the love of country.
The Missing Norms
It was written in times when such things were obvious. No one had to explain to people why the nation or its symbols should be respected. It came naturally. Undoubtedly, Sir Walter Scott would have looked at modern times and shaken his head in disbelief at the self-centered individuals who commonly disregard elementary norms of behavior.
Perhaps that is the problem. There are no standard rules of behavior anymore. Everything is questioned—even identity. Many no longer honor their parents. Some even ridicule them. In these times when the individual reigns supreme, many can only see the nation as an instrument to help them enjoy life. They have little to no reverence for it.
Moreover, there is culpable ignorance. Many know little, and do not care to know more, about their native land, its history and workings. The natural sentiments of patriotism that should swell up within their souls find sterile ground and cannot take hold.
Church Teaching on Patriotism
Love of country is not imposed. It comes naturally as a projection of the love of parents and family. According to the Catholic Church’s teachings, love of country rests on the demands of nature and religion. Both require the proper behavior of children toward parents to whom they owe their existence. Similarly, both impose obligations on citizens toward their nation.
The Church teaches that this sense of reverence stems from the practice of the virtue of piety, which is derived from justice. Piety calls upon all to render to their parents and country all the acts of honor, service, and obedience due to them.
Hence, piety calls for patriotism, which makes both reasonable and extraordinary demands upon individuals.
The Demands of Patriotism
The most fundamental requirement is that the citizen exhibit reasonable esteem and love of country. Back when civics was taught in schools, people learned to display this appreciation by showing interest in the nation’s history and institutions, and respect for its symbols. People learned how to participate in civic activities such as the Pledge of Allegiance, the playing and singing of the national anthem, and the proper lowering and folding of the flag.
Patriotism asks yet more, however, when it calls upon citizens to disregard their self-interest and sacrifice for the common good in times of disaster and war. Such sacrifices bond the nation together.
Finally, patriotism might even require that sacred duty to sacrifice one’s life for the nation so that others might freely live in peace. It requires from the living that they remember and respect those who made that ultimate sacrifice.
This is what it once meant to be a patriotic citizen so that one who might well exclaim with Scott: “This is my own, my native land!”
Sensitivity to Place
Patriotism’s second aspect is less structured. It involves a great sensitivity to a particular place inside the nation. Sir Walter Scott understood well how people normally come to develop natural preferences for the setting where they were born or raised. They savor its panorama, land, climate, or foods. Even rugged, bleak or inhospitable places can take on special meaning for people. They prefer their own nation in general and their own region in particular, even when other places are better endowed by God.
True patriotism does not engender an arrogant and condescending attitude. Rather it is a sentiment in which people come to understand that their native land is made for them, and they for their country. For them, their land has a wide variety of supreme delights like no other place. Far from coveting the delights of others, they understand and rejoice in the fact that others hold their countries in similar high regard.
Thus, one’s native land is like a tower that provides inhabitants with a unique perspective to see their world better. Such a vision does not exclude the appreciation, use, or esteem of things from other lands.
This intimate connection with one’s native land is weakened by a culture that belittles nations, regions, and their God-embedded treasures. Postmodern individuals are told to pursue their own happiness wherever and whenever it appears. In a globalized world, the perception of place is reduced to a mere portal from which one might access goods and services.
A Healthy Backlash
The erosion of what undergirds patriotism is the tragedy of the present controversy over the national anthem. So many of the natural influences that foster a love of one’s native land—religion, community and family—are no longer strong. Few unifying rituals, like the national anthem, remain to bind individuals together as a people.
That is what is so surprising about the healthy backlash against the football theatrics. Despite the weakening of patriotism everywhere, those reacting have taken its vestiges and rekindled in their hearts a fiery defense of the nation.
An Unlikely Battleground
They have taken as their focus patriotism’s most sublime aspect: the sacrifice of those who died for the country. They have made it a point of honor that the country and its symbols be respected.
These are Americans who want the nation to be a giant tower from which to derive supreme delight. They see that no other place can offer what America has given them. This is not a stupid nationalism, which despises other nations and peoples. Rather, it is patriotism. It is that deep and natural love for “my own, my native land!”
Sacrifice, not Selfishness
Thus, an unlikely skirmish on the gridiron has turned into something beyond that of a simple football game. It is now a battle that touches on the core of what America is and should be—a people called to self-sacrifice, “sacred duty” and the practice of the virtue of piety.
Alas, Sir Walter Scott warns his readers of what is to be avoided. In that same poem, he speaks of those with “titles, power and pelf” who are “concentred all in self” who will go down to the dust from which they sprung, “unwept, unhonour’d, and unsung.”
Editor’s note: Pictured above is a detail from a portrait of Sir Walter Scott painted by Sir Henry Raeburn.