Nationalism threatens the true meaning of American patriotism.
There is nothing unique about American nationalism. It is grounded in the first law of nature, self-protection. Nationalism is intrinsically selfish. Other countries may benefit from a super-power’s nationalistic policies, but their own interests remain secondary. Even the most enlightened nationalism therefore breeds resentment. President George W. Bush may be absolutely right about the pressing need to disarm Saddam Hussein, but by offering this as an American imperative he must not be surprised that the world feels bullied.
Unlike American nationalism, American patriotism is unique. The United States of America is “the only nation in the world that is founded on a creed . . . set forth with almost dogmatic and even theological lucidity in the Declaration of Independence,” wrote a British observer, G.K. Chesterton, in 1922. Expanding the compass of natural law in the famous phrase “all men are created equal,” the founders extended the people’s inalienable rights from safety alone to liberty and equality. As summed up in the nation’s motto, E pluribus unum (“out of many, one”), this creed is universal, not parochial. It does not read, “All Americans are created equal.” To the extent that the United States betrays it own ideals, American patriotism holds the nation under judgment.
When established as national writ, “All men are created equal” excluded both women and slaves. The first feminist manifesto (written by Elizabeth Cady Stanton in 1848) invoked the Declaration of Independence. In condemning the curse of slavery, Frederick Douglass and Abraham Lincoln did the same. Expressing his dream, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. looked “forward to the day that this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed.” From the outset of our history, American patriots have challenged the nation to tune its actions to the key of its ideals. In his 1944 study of American racism, the Swedish economist Gunnar Myrdal described U.S. history as “the gradual realization of the American Creed.”
We flirt with forgetting two central aspects of our history. The United States is built on a foundation of belief, not on a foundation of skepticism. And it is by our actions, not our words, that this foundation of belief will be justified or betrayed. “An almost chosen people” (in Lincoln’s words), we demonstrate our greatness not by force of might or by virtue of our economic dominance, but through rigorous moral endeavor, ever striving to remake ourselves in the image of our ideals. When we have approached true greatness, we have been great not because we were strong but because we were good. Fidelity to our national creed remains challenging, but it invests our nation with spiritual purpose and—if we honor its precepts—a moral destiny.
Today we fulfill or betray this destiny most dramatically on the international stage. Abraham Lincoln recognized that the Declaration of Independence “gave liberty not alone to the people of this country, but hope to all the world, for all future time.” On a shrinking globe where discrete backyards no longer exist, the American ideal of E pluribus unum has become an international mandate. Our greatest leaders recognized this half a century ago. President Franklin Delano Roosevelt applied his “Four Freedoms” (freedom from want and fear, freedom of faith and speech) “everywhere in the world.” As chair of the Human Rights Commission of a new United Nations, Eleanor Roosevelt co-authored the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, a global restatement of America’s principles of liberty and justice for all.
As adopted by the United Nations General Assembly on December 10, 1948, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights explicitly echoes Jefferson’s words in the Declaration of Independence. All people are equally “endowed with reason and conscience.” The preamble declares that “recognition of the inherent dignity and of the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family is the foundation of freedom, justice, and peace in the world.”
By affirming and expanding the founders’ vision of “out of many, one,” the United Nations is itself the greatest monument to American patriotism.
Terrorism is not an American problem, it is a world problem. The battle against terror—not a clash of civilizations but a clash between civilization and anarchy—demands an international front, not a self-appointed savior. It may cut against the grain of American nationalism, but the patriotism of those who urge respectful international collaboration in the campaign to disarm Saddam Hussein should not be questioned.
American arrogance can only fan the flames American policy is designed to extinguish. One sets a backfire to control a burning forest only when the winds are favorable. Otherwise the backfire spreads the very flames that it was intended to quench.
Iraq aside, not only does the impulse of American nationalism isolate the United States and turn others against us, it rescinds our nation’s greatest gift. As the world’s leaders struggle to act together—whether to slow global warming, ban land mines, combat racism, or create an International Criminal Court—the president of the United States is conspicuously absent. We have isolated ourselves from the very councils we are charged, by both power and principle, to lead. At a time when E pluribus unum—however idealistic, however difficult to accomplish—is becoming the world’s motto, the United States, whose founders gave this vision as a gift to the world, increasingly stands alone.
What a lost opportunity this represents. Recognizing their own tears in American eyes, people throughout the world expressed unprecedented sympathy for our nation in the wake of 9/11. President Jacques Chirac of France proclaimed, “We are all Americans now.” Today even America is divided against itself. To have squandered both the world’s affection and the united spirit of our citizenry in little more than a year represents a tragic triumph of American nationalism over American patriotism. We need a few more patriots.
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The Rev. Dr. F. Forrester Church (1948–2009) served the Unitarian Church of All Souls in New York City as senior minister from 1978 to 2007 and as minister of public theology from 2007 until his death in September 2009. A frequent contributor to UU World, he was the author many books, including So Help Me God: The Founding Fathers and the First Great Battle Over Church and State (2007), Love and Death: My Journey through the Valley of the Shadow (2008), and The Cathedral of the World: A Universalist Theology (2009).