AMAC Exclusive by Joshua Charles
This 4th of July, we would do well to remember that patriotism is a virtue. To be moral and decent means we must also be patriotic.
245 years ago this week, our Founders issued a document that would lay out the American creed, and begin the process of establishing our new nation. Ever since, that Declaration of Independence has been a source of inspiration and wisdom to countless patriots, statesmen, and advocates for justice and human rights.
Whether it was the early abolitionists, or President Lincoln who would decide to end slavery in the midst of the Civil War, or those who stood up to Jim Crow laws, and stood up for civil rights for all Americans regardless of race, our greatest leaders have always appealed to the Declaration of Independence for inspiration.
All of us alive today have benefited from their sacrifices. We live in a world where slavery is no more; where equal civil rights are the norm; and where human rights are taken for granted. And yet, none of us earned that. We have merely benefited from it.
It is gratitude for that unearned benefit that is at the heart of what we mean when we call patriotism a virtue.
A great Catholic theologian, St. Thomas Aquinas, described patriotism as the virtue of piety. He explains the basis of this virtue in his monumental work, the Summa Theologiae, as follows: “Man becomes a debtor to other men in various ways, according to their various excellence and the various benefits received from them,” he said. “On both counts God holds first place, for He is supremely excellent, and is for us the first principle of being and government.”
But after God, Aquinas says, we are debtors to others. He explains: “On the second place, the principles of our being and government are our parents and our country, that have given us birth and nourishment. Consequently man is debtor chiefly to his parents and his country, after God. Wherefore just as it belongs to religion to give worship to God, so does it belong to piety, in the second place, to give worship to one’s parents and one’s country.”
By “worship,” Aquinas doesn’t mean worship that is owed exclusively to God, but that our respect and honor is owed to others. In this way, Aquinas connects patriotism, or love of country, with another virtue, that of honoring our parents. The connection is simple: both virtues are based on loving those who provided us benefits we never earned ourselves, but were given to us gratuitously. With respect to our parents, they provided us with things we could never provide for ourselves—chiefly our very existence, food, clothing, shelter, and the like. Therefore, even if our parents are sub-standard in other respects, we still owe them a bare minimum of respect and honor. Hence “honor thy mother and thy father” being a part of the Ten Commandments.
Likewise with our country. Patriotism is a similar duty to honoring our parents, but applied to our country. It’s no coincidence that the Latin root for this word, patria (referring to one’s native land) is the same root as the word for father, pater.
Patriotism does not require jingoistic thinking such as, “My country, right or wrong!” because like all the virtues (as Aquinas points out), it too is beneath and predicated on the highest virtue, namely love and honor of God.
That’s why our country can do horrible and unjust things, and the patriot can criticize it for doing so. But what the patriot can never do is damn their country, just as the good man or woman can never damn their parents. The patriot can never disown his country, and claim he is no longer bound to honor it. The patriot can never claim they no longer have any duties to their country, for they recognize they have received benefits they can never fully repay.
It is this virtue of patriotism we must once again revive here in America, on July 4th especially. On this day, we recognize that we are the beneficiaries of blessings we did nothing to attain ourselves. We recognize the sacrifices and great deeds of the men and women who came before us, and built a society that has given and sustains our existence. When we recognize this, the supercilious attitude of so many young people and Leftists becomes impossible. The arrogance of believing our country was contemptible until we and our movement arrived is nothing but the expression of a sick and twisted heart that does not know what love and virtue really is.
As John Adams so movingly wrote to us, the present generation, in a letter to his wife, Abigail:
“Posterity! You will never know, how much it cost the present Generation, to preserve your Freedom! I hope you will make a good Use of it. If you do not, I shall repent in Heaven, that I ever took half the Pains to preserve it.”
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