Sunday, July 8, 2012

Church and patriotism

In Church today, the opening hymn was 'My Country, 'Tis of Thee.'  The rest hymn was 'The Star Spangled Banner.'  Opening and closing prayers thanked God for our great nation.  In our ward, talk subjects are assigned; the talks were not patriotic, nor, to my mind, were either prayer inappropriately partisan.  I've heard of that in other wards--prayers or talks bashing President Obama, for example, and that's been known to happen in our ward's Sunday School, but not for years.  Our ward is, I think, typical for Provo wards--staunchly Republican, but generally respectful to odd-ball Democrats who have yet to see the light. Love the sinner, hate the sin, seems to be the attitude.

But what's interesting to me is the idea that American patriotic songs should be in our hymnal at all.  Of course, our hymnal also includes, for some reason, 'God Save the King (Queen).'  Some think that Finlandia, in our hymnal as 'Be Still My Soul' is Finland's national anthem, but it isn't, this is.  I seem to remember that the Norwegian hymnal had the Norwegian national anthem in it.  And I've heard quotations from General Authorities saying that patriotism is part of the gospel, no matter where we live; that Mormon Americans should be patriotic Americans, just as Mormon Russians should be patriotic Russians, and so on.

I'm not sure I get that.  Why should loving one's country be considered virtuous?  And what exactly do we mean by patriotism? 

When our kids were younger, the grade school they attended had an annual patriotic program.  Each class would prepare and sing two or three patriotic songs, all in the Lee Greenwood vein.  A slide show would accompany a lot of the songs.  The kids sang very loudly, all backed by an instrumental track, all unison, but sort of zombie-ized, not much genuine enthusiasm. You sort of felt shouted at. This was a popular program--huge parental and grand-parental audiences.  They'd tape the show, and the PTA would sell DVDs of previous year's programs, and did a brisk business. The slide show was usually okay: images of bald eagles and pretty mountains and the Grand Canyon and the White House and Washington monument and Lincoln Memorial. 

It was kind of a patriotic Primary program from hell.  I don't know if I've ever detested a public performance as much as I detested the patriotic program. I went--my kids were up there, I needed to support them--but all that bad music shouted at us?  Made for a tough two hours.

So does that make me unpatriotic?  And therefore, in a state of sin?  I don't like the Pledge of Allegiance, for example.  I don't like the notion of 'pledging allegiance' to a piece of cloth.  I don't care for our National Anthem. Who cares if the flag was still there? Dumb battle in a dumb war we basically lost--they did burn down our capital--set to an unsingable tune.  If we have to have a National anthem, I wouldn't mind America the Beautiful.

But then there's this.  What's great about Woody Guthrie's anthem is its inclusiveness, its open celebration of all of America.  Not the militaristic America, but a land made for you and me.  I hear that song--especially as sung by The Boss--and I start to feel something real and true.  A warmth in the heart.

So I guess I'm maybe a little patriotic after all. 

Okay, but, so, this: At the patriotic program one year, the slide show included an image of President Bush, in his flight jacket,on the deck of the Abraham Lincoln in 2003.  I don't remember if there was a slide of the Mission Accomplished banner behind him, but it was celebrating a man, a President, whose policies I had come to loathe.  And yet, Woody Guthrie encourages me to think maybe even that's okay.  I can't celebrate the specific decisions made by a President I disagreed with, but I can celebrate the Constitution, and its freedoms and guarantees, and the process under which we elect a President, a Congress, a government.

I think it would be really tough to be a patriot of a lot of countries.  I'm not sure I could be a patriotic North Korean, for example.  It would be tough to be a patriotic Somalian.  But what you could do is say 'I will work to make my country better.  I will work to make my country work.' 

So I think that's what we should do too.  I'm an American, and I live in a country built on a Declaration of Independence that has some brilliant words in it, about equality and pursuing happiness.  Written by a slave-owner.  But that's okay, sort of, if we think of patriotism being about identifying problems and working towards solutions, not just celebrating. . . us.  How awesome we are because of an accident of birth.  Shading towards idolatry.  

But to say: "okay, here's what we're doing wrong.  Here's what we need to work on next."  I can get behind that, I think.  Okay, so I'll cheer for American athletes at the Olympics, and for all the other athletes too.  And when I think of the Patriotic Program, I'll also think of the teachers at that school who did such a wonderful job educating my children.  And I'll even look at Bush and try to focus on the good things he accomplished even though that's really really really hard to do.

And in sacrament meeting, I'll sing. The National Anthem. That song, that impossible, unsingable song, has exactly one sentiment I agree with, one note I love.  It's the high note, the big finale note at the Super Bowl and World Series, the one big flashy final note.  I remember how my Dad would sing it at basketball games. 

It's the word "free." The land of the free.  And to truly make it free, to truly live up to its promise, you have to be something else.  Brave.  Brave as so many of our heroes were brave, the union organizers and anti-war protestors and marchers for the rights of all Americans.  Free.  Brave, to be free.  And for the first time, I can see why that song's in our hymnal.    


  1. I left on a foreign mission in 2000 and returned in 2002 to a country I barely recognized, patriotically speaking. Flags were everywhere! Even a whole year after 9/11, it felt fresh - and I totally missed it. An investigator did turn on the TV and showed us the plane hitting the WTC, but we were so focused on what we were doing that we just sort of got over it and moved on. I had no clue of the patriotic orgy that was happening in the US. So I felt a little out of place when I returned home and didn't feel like waving a flag harder (or wearing a flag lapel pin) - I didn't feel like it was any answer to making people feel better. In true missionary idealism, I actually felt like the peace the gospel message could bring was what could heal people's hearts. Instead, people were just lining up behind a flag and the world's biggest military and looking for somewhere to bomb. It was a sad realization of what patriotism is all about.

    While, still today, I have to hold myself back a bit during the 4th of July breakfast or with the American Exceptionalism stuff in Sunday School. I feel like patriotism is actually an excuse we make to not get along as fellow human beings. God has no sovereignty - and I feel like more members of the church should realize what that means than actually do.

  2. Ralph Nader relates an experience in, I think, 17 Traditions - he says his mother once asked him, "do you love your country?" and he answered, "yes." She replied something like, "then what will you do to make her better?" - to me he will always be the man who brought us seatbelts, and I am grateful.