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Public Theology: Defining American Patriotism
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Defining American Patriotism
George Will sees no big changes necessary in foreign policy. Theologian Gary Simpson sees it differently.

By Ed Knudson

On the eve of John Kerry's acceptance speech of the Democratic Party's nomination for president George Will writes in his column that it is silly to conceive of this election as a "hinge on which American and world history will turn." Will has, of course, been basking in the strength of conservative politics over the past couple decades. He doesn't want any changes. For him patriotism is celebrating military dominance of American power around the world as well as the decline of the welfare state.

The fact is, of course, that George W. Bush after 9/11 has implemented extremist international policies based on the neoconservative idea of American Empire which have been used to ridicule the United Nations and justify the war in Iraq. The right wing talk shows view anyone who questions these policies as unpatriotic, as if empire building has always been the traditional posture of the United States in relation to the rest of the world. Not so. All previous wars have been contested by Americans. There is no absolute tradition of unilateral declaration of war in this country. Even now, after Iraq, no one in the Bush administration can speak in terms of more wars against more countries. Doing wars such as Iraq simply is far outside the American ethos, not compatible with how most Americans view their country.

To re-elect George Bush, however, will be for some an affirmation of the idea of American empire. To elect John Kerry will be a rejection of that idea. Right now, listening to the commentators at the Democratic Convention, Kerry is not taking on the President. For political strategic reasons his advisors think he needs to present himself as strong, willing to use military might against enemies of the nation. But, in the background, there is a profound difference between the two men. Kerry will not place neoconservatives in key positions in his administration. He will not attack and ridicule the United Nations. He will move in a substantially different direction. He will not associate the American flag with blind obedience to a commander-in-chief willing to put the lives of young Americans at risk for an unjustified war.

Political views are always based on historical interpretation. As I was thinking about these matters today I happened to run across a remarkable piece of writing by Gary Simpson, professor of theology at Lutheran Theological Seminary in St. Paul, Minnesota. The article is entitled By the Dawn's Early Light: The Flag, the Interrogatory, and the Whence and Whither of Normative Patriotism. By pointing to several historical figures Simpson defines what he calls "normative patriotism".

Lincoln in the Gettysburg Address adds "equality, hope, and repentance" to the depository of American patriotism, going beyond the legal narrowness of the constitution itself by referring to the birth of the nation in 1776, the date of the Declaration of Independence. Emma Lazarus added a "pluralist hospitality" to the definition of patriotism with her words on the base of the Stature of Liberty: "Give me your tired, your poor, Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free." Such hospitality is over-against Romantic nativism associated with atristocratic republicanism and Theodore Roosevelt's triumphalism. And Martin Luther King, Jr., added to the the meaning of the flag in his "I Have a Dream" speech before the Lincoln Memorial in Washington D.C. on August 28, 1963. With that speech King introduces "solidarity" across racial difference into the definition of American patriotism: "we will be able to work together, to pray together, to go to jail together, to stand up for freedom together."

Simpson closes his article with comments on the "neo-Reaganite internationalists", the name neoconservatives have called themselves. He believes the flag of the United States of America should represent "civic internationalism" defined as Lincoln's equality, hope and repentance, Emma Lazarus' hospitality, and King's solidarity and justice.

There is a very big difference, indeed, between this interpretation of history, this vision of patriotism means, and that which informs the policies of the current president.

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Date Added: 7/29/2004 Date Revised: 7/30/2004 11:13:10 AM

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