Patriotism and Religion

Back in 1775, the great English wit and social commentator Samuel Johnson famously said that "Patriotism is the last refuge of a scoundrel" -- meaning that when all else fails, a person who is without morals will appeal to love of his country to try to justify his crimes. But more recently, a writer for The Santa Monica (California) Mirror, Tony Peyser, corrected Johnson's famous saying by adding that "the current crop of right-wing scoundrels are now finding refuge in religion." If that is true, then I would say it only confirms what I and many others have been thinking all along -- that the problem is when people confound or confuse religion with patriotism, or mistake love of country with love of God, which is easy to do when we consider that the test of our love of God is our love of our neighbor, and that our nearest neighbors are our fellow countrymen. However, when that happens, and our love of neighbor turns into violence against other humans, patriotism too often becomes another form of idolatry or the worship of a false God. If this be the case, then I think it would be useful to see what religious thinkers (theologians) have had to say about patriotism. Thomas Aquinas, perhaps the greatest systematic theologian who ever lived, for example, said that patriotism is not a really a variety of love so much as it is part of the virtue or quality of justice -- a matter of rendering back what we owe to others, in this case what we owe to society and government for providing what we need to live a fully civilized and human life. From this point of view, defending our country against unjust aggressors, paying taxes, and (in our form of government) voting, are all moral obligations from which we can not be easily excused. It would also seem clear, from this point of view, that anyone who claims to be a patriot, yet avoids paying his or her share of taxes, is guilty of freeloading at the public's expense and deserves to be branded a hypocrite. However, I would suggest another approach, one not based on the four cardinal moral virtues of classical philosophy (prudence, justice, temperance and fortitude), but on the Ten Commandments -- namely the fourth (or fifth, depending which Old Testament list you follow) -- or in any case the one that says we must "Honor your father and mother", with our country understood as our "father" or "mother-land". Just as we should obey our parents when we are small, help them when we are more mature, and care for them when they grow old, so too we should respect and obey our lawful authorities, help our country in its needs, and even sacrifice ourselves for the love our fellow citizens. It would also include a healthy ecological environmentalism, for a our country is not just our government, but even more fundamentally the land, the earth, without which no country or nation could possibly exist! But I think this approach has another advantage as well. As we too often know, old age or senility often seems to cause the most wonderful people in the world (even our parents) to sometimes do crazy things. Suppose, your 80-year old father decides to gamble the whole family fortune on an ill-conceived plan to invade a foreign country or your sainted old grandmother starts to gamble your inheritance away at the nearest casino. Certainly you'd be outraged and would do everything you could to get them to come to their senses and to change their mind. If not, at least I would hope we -- as true patriots -- have sense enough to take away our father's or grandma's car keys before they kill themselves or someone else -- namely ourselves. Do we get the point? I hope so. It is that genuine patriotism sometimes demands blunt speaking and if this doesn't work, sometimes taking things into our own hands, if not through revolution -- which should never be necessary in a true democracy -- at least through our vote. Viewed through this lens, voting is a religious as well as civil obligation, one that we Americans, if the latest polls are any indication, haven't taken seriously enough! I wonder too if this same obligations don't also apply to us as citizens of heaven, that is the Kingdom of Heaven on earth -- the Church. Indeed, the Second Vatican Council had something to say about that as well. In fact, the Catechism of the Catholic Church (#907) quotes the Code of Canon Law (#212.3) which says that "the Laity have the right and even at times the duty to make their opinions known to their pastors on matters that pertain to the Church and they have the right to make their opinions known to others of the Faithful" -- which would seem to indicate that such organizations as "Call to Action" and "Voice of the Faithful" not only have a right to exist, but in turn must be listened to by the Bishops, even if the latter do not agree with them. In other words, being a good Catholic, as well as being a good citizen, is a two way street. The Communion of the Church, like the federation of states which we call the United States of America is a cooperative venture. Not only must we "pay, pray, and obey" but we also need the courage to speak out and the strength to do what needs to be done. God bless you and God bless America.

R W Kropf 7/2/05 Patriots.doc 05-07-02.html