This Land So Fair and Free

Nationalism seems like it ought to be synonymous with patriotism but nationalism is actually very different and much more than patriotism. Webster defines patriotism as “love for or devotion to one’s country.” Nationalism, according to the dictionary, is “exalting one nation above all others, promoting its culture and interests as opposed to other nations or supranational groups.” Nationalism is patriotism with a hard edge, sometimes a nasty edge, dangerous even. It is difficult to overestimate the power of nationalism, the superiority of one’s own nation. Adolf Hitler was a master at appealing to and manipulating the latent nationalism of the German people, convincing millions that theirs was a “master race”, entitled to rule and that people of other nationalities and ethnic groups were inferior; in the case of the Jewish people, not entitled to exist. Vladimir Putin has fanned the flames of Russian nationalism and the paranoia that accompanies it and translated it into dangerously aggressive behavior toward neighbors. Donald Trump has awakened and is exploiting nationalism more skillfully than any American politician has in a very long time, stimulating anger and resentment of immigrants flooding our borders and taking our nation away from us, promising to build a wall to keep them out and to make America great again, and even insinuating that our President and former Secretary of State are up to something sinister under the influence of who knows who.
Great Britain’s referendum decision to leave the European Union, strengthen borders, limit immigration, take the nation back again, is a dramatic illustration of the power of nationalism, even when it flies in the face of the best advice of the nation’s smartest, most astute leaders.
As we celebrate the Fourth of July this year it is particularly important, it seems to me, to understand the difference between nationalism and patriotism – the love of one’s country.
I will fly the flag on the Fourth of July, as I always have. It belonged to my father and I watched as he carefully displayed it from our front porch on national holidays, particularly the Fourth. It was one of the items I wanted from our home after my parents died and I will fly it next week not because I believe my nation is superior to all other nations, but because I do love this nation and its core values of liberty and justice for all its citizens. I love it for its aspiration to extend the blessings of freedom and equality to all its citizens and for its ongoing commitment to the difficult but necessary obligation to remedy inequality. I love it for its struggle to secure and protect justice and equal rights for Americans who have been denied justice on the basis of race or gender or sexual orientation. I love it for the way millions of Americans responded to the horrific murders of 49 gay and mostly Hispanic men and women in an Orlando nightclub by flying the rainbow flag and turning out in unprecedented numbers to support our fellow citizens who have been demeaned, discriminated against and denied basic rights because of their sexual orientation.
I looked up again this year something distinguished University of Chicago theologian and my teacher, Joseph Sittler, wrote one time. It’s one of my favorites on the subject of patriotism.
“Before the word America can set one thinking or planning or resolving or defending, it ought to set one dreaming and remembering. And out of this dreamed procession of America as a concrete place will be poured the ingot of a tough and true patriotism…..Loving, personal identification with one’s own land has never been a breeder of arrogant nationalism. Indeed a person’s love for his or her land can be the basis of respect for other peoples’ respect for their land. Just as only those who have convictions know the meaning of tolerance, so none can assess the land-loves of other people except those who know and deeply love their own.”
A “tough and true patriotism”, not the phony patriotism of the rabid nationalist who rails against other nations that are “raping” us and refugees who are flooding across our borders, but a tough and true patriotism that loves the nation enough to criticize it when it fails to live up to its own best and highest purposes and values. William Sloane Coffin used to say that the phony patriot who says “My country, right or wrong” is no better than someone saying “My grandmother, drunk or sober.” It doesn’t get us anywhere.
The Fourth of July comes this year in the midst of a particularly trying time for our nation. ISIS terror continues to threaten, ideological partisanship has so paralyzed Congress that it cannot seem to function, our cities are awash in guns and even the most modest attempts at gun control fail, and a presidential campaign continues to descend into personal insult and name-calling rather than an important discussion of the critical issues and challenges facing us.
So, in addition to flying the flag I will offer a prayer on the Fourth of July. It’s from the Worshipbook of the Presbyterian Church, “For a Day of National Significance” and I commend it to you.
Great God: we thank you for this land so fair and free; for its worthy aims and charities. We are grateful for people who have come to our shores, with customs and accents to enrich our lives. You have led us in the past, forgiven evil, and will lead us in time to come. Give us a voice to praise your goodness in this land, and a will to serve you, now and always. Amen


  1. Thank you for this, John. Well said and easily, though nervously read.

  2. Reblogged this on Views from the Edge and commented:
    John Buchanan’s post for The Fourth of July speaks for me by differentiating clearly between patriotism and nationalism and by applying the difference to the voices in America today.

  3. Helena Flickinger says:

    Thank you for sharing the beautiful prayer, as well as the reasons for loving our country.

  4. Well said.

  5. Sarah Odishoo says:

    Thank you, Dr. B for reminding us of that America and the creative genius of the
    Founding fathers who made a new nation based on humane principles and
    Its intelligence that should continually remind us of its biblical basis: love your
    Neighbor as yourself and love God with all your heart, mind , and soul.
    Sometimes we need the very opposites to remind us and take us back to
    What we Must consciously value to act on the values we espouse…

  6. Thanks to both John and Gordon for putting into words what we should all believe.

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