May 28, 2010

Cornucopia / Cynthia Dewes

Patriotism is a virtue, but it’s hard work to keep it virtuous

Cynthia DewesSamuel Johnson once said, “Patriotism is the last refuge of a scoundrel.” He meant that, when our faulty arguments fail, we can always claim the moral high road as our own.

That way, we may prevail even if we’re dead wrong. Politicians seem particularly adept at using this ploy.

National holidays, such as Memorial Day, seem to bring out the best and the worst kinds of patriotism, including the kind claimed by scoundrels. On top of that, we have what seems to me a prevailing ignorance of history in our country, which increases the margin for error.

To me, true patriotism means respect, and even affection, for one’s country. It involves gratitude for what we consider righteous about it, and responsibility for changing what is not. It’s not blind jingoism, and it doesn’t place harsh judgments on those who don’t agree with our assessments.

This is one of the very reasons I am patriotic about the U.S.A.—because it was founded upon the rights of individuals to govern themselves with their good and the common good equally in mind. Free speech is not only tolerated, but mandated, as are other itemized freedoms.

Furthermore, citizens are “endowed by their Creator” with these rights, including the rights to “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” Thus, God had a hand in forming our society, no matter how some malcontents dislike the words “In God we Trust” on our currency and “under God” in the Pledge of Allegiance to the flag. We are a nation formed on religious moral principles.

We are not a political entity created by internecine wars, geographical placement or dominant dynasties. War lords and tribal arguments did not determine our borders or our governmental structure as they do in other parts of the world.

The Founding Fathers set up an idealistic rationale for our existence.

This does not mean we always live up to that standard. Look at what we did to the Native Americans! Some may say, “My country, right or wrong.”

But I say wrong is wrong and should never be acceptable, especially in a society which began with such lofty aims. Like the Church, it embraces the idea that the end never justifies the means.

Trouble begins when we try to apply this maxim to real life. Was dropping atomic bombs on Japan a matter of self-defense or of committing murder to avoid larger numbers of deaths in an invasion? Does our dependence upon Middle Eastern oil to keep our economy healthy justify a war to topple a dictator? You can argue both ways.

The point is, in accordance with our founding principles, every national decision should be considered in moral terms. The right to life is mandated by our Declaration of Independence so why is abortion legal? We’re guaranteed the right to liberty, which does not mean license as some try to construe it legally, and we enjoy the right to the pursuit of happiness. “Pursuit” is the operative word here, and does not mean “absolute attainment.” Our happiness must never trample the rights of others.

We Americans started out as people dedicated to Christian ideals: the use of individual free will to follow what we discern to be God’s will; the responsibility to serve others and our community; and the primacy of the family unit in social structure. It’s certainly not easy, but we need to persevere as true patriots on this Memorial Day and always.

(Cynthia Dewes, a member of St. Paul the Apostle Parish in Greencastle, is a regular columnist for The Criterion.)

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