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What is Patriotism?

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As the nation commemorates the 232nd anniversary of declaring its independence from British rule, I can think of no better time to ask: what is patriotism? The obvious answer is a love of country; but what exactly does that mean?

Since Thomas Jefferson penned his immortal words in 1776, we have unsuccessfully sought to achieve a harmonious definition of patriotism -- a one-size-fits-all meaning. This lies in stark contrast to the revolutionary spirit.

The internal acrimony between the 13 colonies during its quest for independence is well documented. The Founders were not models of perfection, but they serve to this day as the gold standard of courage that we are required to follow.

The act of breaking free from British rule to embark on the American experiment required extraordinary courage. Each man who signed his name to the Declaration of Independence knew the potential consequences of rebelling against the British Empire included death. Moreover, the democracy that was achieved no doubt exceeded the Founder's imagination.

Through their courage, the Founders, most belonging to the professional class, many were slaveholders, provided the groundwork for Martin Luther King to follow in their audacious footsteps 189 years later. The valor of the Civil Rights Movement in the South was fortified and inspired by the same impulses that took on the British Empire.

It is no accident that arguably the two greatest speeches in American history, Lincoln's Gettysburg Address and King's "I Have a Dream," find their moral justification in the Declaration of Independence. The greatness of the Founders was to give life to a document vastly superior to the flawed hands that wrote it.

But fear remains the greatest nemesis to any democracy. The systematic devaluation of the Constitution based on post-9/11 fears must be placed in the historical context of events like Japanese internment following Pearl Harbor and the Alien and Sedition Act in 1798, signed into law by President John Adams.

Adams and his Federalist Party would pay a heavy price for supporting the Alien and Sedition Act. In 1800, Jefferson would defeat him for the presidency and the Federalist were well on their way to becoming a political party of antiquity whose better days were behind them.

We are already witnessing the country taking corrective measures against the Republican Party's post 9/11 overreach as Democrats took back Congress in 2006. The prospects of a G.O.P. congressional majority in 2008 also appear slim.

If, however, the love of country that defines patriotism has been reduced to wearing metal flags on one's lapel and adorning bumper stickers that read: "I Support the Troops" then something is lacking. Where is the courage that exemplifies the spirit of 1776?

It is an open question as to whether America is prepared to relinquish the shackles of the "strip mall patriotism" that dominates the current public conversation. Just like the strip malls that inhabit the country, we are opting for a prefabricated brand of patriotism dependent more on homogenization, agreement, and fear rather than the uniqueness, dissent, and courage that gave birth to this enterprise.

Patriotism must be more than simplistic outwardly displays of allegiance. Such exhibits do not do justice to a country that realizes part of its greatness in its ability to support the constitutional rights of those whom it would spend a lifetime in opposition. Patriotism is the courage to love the country enough to applaud it when it's right and criticize it when it's wrong with equal vigor.

Jefferson said it best in his last public statement. Too frail to attend the 50th commemoration of the Declaration of Independence he wrote:

"The general spread of the light of science has already laid open to every view the palpable truth that the mass of mankind has not been born with saddles on their backs, nor a favored few booted and spurred, ready to ride them legitimately by the grace of god ... For ourselves, let the annual return of this day, forever refresh our recollections of these rights and an undiminished devotion to them."

Byron Williams is an Oakland pastor and syndicated columnist. He is the author of Strip Mall Patriotism: Moral Reflections of the Iraq War. E-mail him at byron@byronspeaks.com or go to his website byronspeaks.com