Patriotism: What it is, what it isn’t, and whether it’s still a good thing

You’ve probably heard the phrase, “American Exceptionalism.” It used to be said much more, and its meaning used to be much more understood. It does not mean “American Superiority.” In other words, it’s not saying America is intrinsically supreme over all other nations — in the eyes of God or even in our own eyes — because of some intrinsic favor we have because of our wealth, whiteness, brilliance, dominance, strength, etc. Instead, to be exceptional is to be the exception. It’s to say, “All others are like this, but that one is like that.” 

Exceptionalism is talking about what’s different. Not what’s better. 

And so on this 4th of July weekend, when our politics seem to put deeper and deeper chasms between us and when our history is being painted with incredibly broad brush strokes, the question should be asked…

Is it still okay to be patriotic? 

Sure it is. Depending on what you mean by the word, because patriotism doesn’t mean the same thing to everyone. 

Patriotism is not ignoring our past.

It seems that some people lump patriotism in with some odd and blind allegiance to history, as though being thankful for our nation, our troops, and the opportunities we’ve been given means that we therefore endorse slavery, bigotry, and hatred. People are and always have been flawed. Human beings have been doing awful things to each other for millennia. Is our nation’s history perfect? That’s not up for debate. Of course it isn’t. Slavery, injustice, discrimination: these are tragic parts of our story. Parts we’re still sorting through and healing from.

But the reality that our nation was built differently remains. 

Patriotism is perspective for today. 

The good and the bad in our nation can be understood with more clarity when viewed through the lens of history. Winston Churchill, among others, once famously quipped, “Those that fail to learn from history are doomed to repeat it.” The more we view our union in light of where we’ve been, what we’ve learned, what’s worked and what hasn’t, and what matters and what doesn’t, the more we can set the right trajectory for what’s to come. 

Our nation’s founding and uniqueness sets us up for the future, if we’re willing to learn from it. 

Patriotism is hope for our future. 

Go back again to that definition of American Exceptionalism. It’s about the fact that it’s different than the others. The individual things that made America different a couple hundred years ago can be summarized in one word: Opportunity. America was, is, and hopefully will remain, the land of opportunity. Hope for our future isn’t found 200 years ago. It’s found in the vision for a land of opportunity that our founding and history embodies. 

Many of the efforts being done to unravel — and subsequently delegitimize — our nation’s history, founding, and uniqueness are drawing lines and building walls between us. They’re making disproportionately huge assumptions about what we mean when we say that we’re proud to be Americans; that we’re thankful for our country. 

The greatness of our nation is found in the uniqueness of it; not the perfection of it.

So enjoy your 4th of July weekend, knowing that our founding fathers built a system – and a government – that works, that allows us to work together to overcome our flaws, learn from our history, and have hope for our future. 

Happy Independence Day!