C.S. Lewis On Patriotism

I’m not a flag-waving American. I don’t think that my country is the ‘greatest country in the world,’ and I cringe at phrases like “God Bless the USA,” simply because if I’m going to ask God’s blessing on people, it seems a pretty small vision of God’s kingdom to ask that blessing only upon the land that happened to issue my passport. Still, I’ll admit to being pretty fond of my blue and gold US passport, and even to having gotten a little misty-eyed when it gets stamped and I hear that (New York accented) “welcome home!” at JFK International Airport.

Look, I’m not into illusions about America, Americans, or our history. I’ve read A People’s History of the United States more than once, and other books which have left me with little in the way of naive patriotism of the ‘greatest country on earth!’ variety. But my shelves also hold a whole lot of good stories I read to the kids about all kinds of Americans and great American stories, because those are true, too. Yes, when I think about the CIA’s involvement in the overthrow of democratically elected leader Jacobo Arbenz of Guatemala, I feel sick. And yet I have seen firsthand the many, many, many GOOD projects funded by US-AID in some of the poorest places on earth–like Guatemala.

I have less patience with generalized criticisms of (US) Americans generally, such as: Americans are fat, Americans have no fashion sense, Americans don’t know how to eat well, Americans don’t care about other countries, Americans are ignorant, Americans are lazy, Americans are racist. I’ve heard all of these and more in my time overseas as well as at home, sometimes even from fellow Americans who clearly felt themselves to be exceptions to the rule in each of these categories.

(My answer to each of these charges is, quite simply: President Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama. Well, kidding. Sort of.)

In some circles it is pretty much fashionable to be at least casually anti-American, even if you are American. Every few weeks, it seems, there’s some article telling us why the {Dutch, Swedes, French, Japanese} do {food, work, parenting, clothing} better than we do and a few times a year, it seems, there some book coming out telling us how to {eat, parent, work, dress} like the {Italians, Dutch, Germans, French}. I find this not a little annoying, and, yes, spectacularly American, in both the best and worst ways.

Best: because what is pretty cool about the US is how many cultures and nations and ideas have shaped it.

Worse: because what’s not so cool, at least, not to me, is how anxious many of us seem to be that we’re doing it wrong (whatever ‘it’ is) even as many others of us refuse even to consider that we may, in fact, be able to do it better (whatever ‘it’ is.) Because there’s always more to learn.

For whatever criticisms I might have of American culture and American government, I am, as I said, happy to hold a US passport and to call the USA my home. I love my country with its faults and probably because of them. I’ve even eaten at American fast food restaurants overseas AND ENJOYED IT, though I rarely, if ever, eat at such places in the US. Why, then, when I’m overseas? Because for better or worse (usually, if I’m being at all objective, worse)–it tastes like home. As C.S. Lewis wrote, far from leading necessarily to arrogance or aggression, patriotism properly ordered can be a place from which to understand other people from other places not as benighted fools who don’t understand what is truly good in life but as people who love what they love just as we love what we love:

“How can I love my home without coming to realize that other men, no less rightly, love theirs? Once you have realized that the Frenchmen like café complet just as we like bacon and eggs – why, good luck to them and let them have it.”

{Happy July the Fourth.}

This is an adapted re-post from the archives. We’ve been a bit under the weather, but hope to grill some meat and, I don’t know, watch fireworks on YouTube anyway.

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5 thoughts on “C.S. Lewis On Patriotism

  1. Well first off, Rachel, I hope you are all feeling better soon!

    Second, thanks for providing perspective. When I lived overseas I saw much of the same attitude about American shortcomings, and almost always from fellow Americans. As Lewis said, patriotism properly ordered gives us a way to understand people better.

    That bit about properly ordering patriotism is the tricky part. I think it’s because if it’s not ordered within the understanding of God’s sovereignty then there’s nothing proper about it at all. When people try to make patriotism the highest virtue, we have a problem! (http://timfall.wordpress.com/2013/07/04/patriotism-is-not-even-close-to-being-the-highest-virtue/)

    Praying for recovery for you all!

    Tim

      • I’m trying to comment on your post but can’t!? Here’s what I was trying to say:

        It’s when I’m living overseas that I think I appreciate America’s virtues the most. Except when I spent a whole summer chilling at an amazing German public pool, stopping off for some bratwurst and dark beer afterward, and riding home on my bike on SAFE bike paths. I was almost ready to hand in my passport. Well, not really. ;)

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