I remember not so long ago reading a bumper sticker stuck to the side of a Cambridge newspaper stand that read, “Stop thinking like an American!” As a rule, Revolutionary Communist Party [pdf] propaganda should not be taken for public opinion. But the reds may have struck a chord with the cosmopolitan ethos of our ever more globalized world.
The problem is, I cannot stop thinking like an American. I am an American. That means something, especially in the heights and depths of my imagination. When I see the painting of Washington crossing the Delaware, I feel something that is nearer to me than when I watch Enemy at the Gates, even though both our first president and the conscripts at Stalingrad showed extraordinary human courage. When I read about the Civil Rights Movement in America, I feel like it belongs somewhere deeper in my heart than when I read about the Arab Spring, even though both are cases of people fighting for their dignity as human beings. When I remember September 11, I ache more than when I think of the London subway terror attacks, even though both were instances of innocent people dying at the hands of an evil ideology. Most of my ancestors were spread out through Italy, Ireland, and Lithuania at the time of the Revolutionary War, and no one I know personally perished in the World Trade Center. But somehow, I feel like I can share more authentically in America’s history and happenings than, say, Tom MacMaster can share in the struggles of gay Syrians.
Patriotism is impossible to define, as are all loves, but it feels like a very real thing. Americans of every race and age have some kind of proximity to me in my heart that is what I suppose the ancients meant by the term “civic friendship.” It is not a sort of cheap sentimentalism, in the sense that I automatically like every American, or even like any given American more than any given foreigner. But the word “patriotism,” another word that is often used to refer to a love of one’s country, is also metaphorical. It has roots in the Latin word for “father,” even though none of us consider Uncle Sam a blood relative, and even though most of us trace our ancestry back to other places. The belonging that I feel towards America is similar in some ways both to friendship and to family. As with my friends, I share in the joys and sorrows of America. When it is well, I am well. When it makes mistakes, I am ashamed. When it is insulted, I feel a sort of instinctual defense of it. Like my family, America has a permanent place of priority in my heart, I am annoyed by certain aspects of its personality, and I am entirely baffled by some of the people in it. At the end of the day, all its disappointing sides included, it is mine and I am its, and that relationship can only properly be called love.
From time to time, it is important to issue declarations of our dependence. We get together as families and have cookouts, and we head out to town parks to watch fireworks with our friends. The ceremonies of the Fourth of July also exist for the sake of an important relationship, the one we have with this nation. When we sing “God Bless America,” we imagine ourselves as the kin of every American, from sea to shining sea. When we fly the flag, we remember the old glory of all of those generations before us who made great sacrifices to keep it waving over the land of the free and the home of the brave. When we think back on Washington, Adams, Jefferson, we share in their vision of a nation conceived in liberty, which we will entrust to our children. The Fourth of July is a time to be among the Americans, past, present, and future.
Valentine’s Day is not the only holiday dedicated to love. Tomorrow, if you like, there will be plenty of time to go back to thinking of what it means to be a citizen of the world. But today, let the patriotic imagination run free, lovingly remembering America as her child and her friend.
About the Author: Originally from Connecticut, Matt Cavedon is pursuing a joint JD/Masters in Theological Studies degree at the Emory School of Law and the Candler School of Theology in Atlanta, Georgia. Matt is a Catholic, holds conservative views, and aims to walk the fine line between constructive criticism and downright cynicism towards popular political trends. He finds the insights of Aristotle, Thomas Aquinas, Francisco Suarez, Edmund Burke, Jacques Maritain, Friedrich Hayek, and James C. Scott particularly valuable. In his free time, Matt enjoys visiting art museums, informally composing classical music in his head, and drinking a good glass of scotch or red wine.