The following is an excerpt from my book Give Me Liberty: A Handbook for American Revolutionaries:
What are we supposed to do to reclaim freedom? We need to understand that we are bombarded with both fake patriotism and fake democracy. Only then can we get to the real American mandate.
The key ways, the phrases and metaphors, in which we are often asked to think about America tend to make us stupid, complacent, and inert. They are also, if you go back to what the great Americans wished us to identify as love of country, just plain wrong. Today, politicians often ask us to think of ourselves as a kind of "chosen people" by birthright: "Our nation is chosen by God and commissioned by history to be a model to the world," as George W. Bush asserted during the 2000 election campaign.
Over the past four decades, patriotism was often defined as uncritical support for U.S. policies--such as the Vietnam War-era bumper sticker MY COUNTRY, RIGHT OR WRONG. Patriotism was also branded as support for U.S. militarism, whatever the context or conflict or cost. Sometimes patriotism was identified with "Christian America" and sometimes even as direct evangelism in the context of statecraft. Finally patriotism was rebranded as the active silencing of dissent. John McCain, for instance, whose campaign messaging in 2008 was grounded in a theme of patriotism, recently called in public for members of MoveOn.org to be kicked out of the country. But all these rebrandings of patriotism would have dismayed the great Americans who had all at various times criticized U.S. military actions, U.S. policies, the establishment of any state religion, and most of all, criticized those who would silence disagreeing voices and dissent.
How did "patriotism" become so dumbed down? There are many reasons. During the Vietnam War, the left often abandoned a claim on the notion of "patriotism." Young antiwar leaders challenged the mythology of the stars and stripes--fair enough--but spent less energy reinvestigating and reanimating the ideals the flag was intended to represent. By disdaining America's own most radical heritage, the left let the right "brand" patriotism. Today's leaders on the left rarely assert that the most radical revolution in human history has already taken place-- in 1776--and that it is spreading in fits and starts around the globe. Their message rarely calls on citizens to reclaim the American Revolution above any other.
And unfortunately for everyone across the political spectrum, the religious right, especially during the 1970s and 1980s, redefined patriotism in ways that would have appalled Paine, Jefferson, Washington, and Adams--not to mention the Republican president Abraham Lincoln. "Patriotism" became identified with blind loyalty and a sense that America is innately better than the rest of the world.
So today, we often believe that we as Americans are "the Elect"--a special, almost a chosen, people, who are uniquely entitled to a place in the sun. Where did that idea originally come from? For it is actually a direct heresy against the founders' intent.
The founders did not create liberty for America, but America for liberty, which they understood as part of universal law. The notion of an America that was above other nations because we were somehow better, already "saved"--rather than an America that was continually called to become better, continually charged with saving itself--is an idea that only came into vogue about fifty years after the revolution of 1776. This idea emerged out of the religious revival movement called the Second Great Awakening. The founders and the greatest Americans of the previous generation would have been apoplectic at the conception that the U.S. is simply saved, simply special, whether or not it does good works.
Rather, our calling America to face itself is central to the task the founders and great Americans explicitly left us.
In 2008, presidential contender Barack Obama was pilloried in the mainstream press because he associated with a minister, the Reverend Jeremiah Wright, who gave speeches blisteringly critical of U.S. policies. In a sermon, "The Day of Jerusalem's Fall," delivered soon after the September 11 attacks in 2001, Wright said, "We bombed Hiroshima, we bombed Nagasaki, and we nuked far more than the thousands in New York and the Pentagon, and we never batted an eye . . . and now we are indignant because the stuff we have done overseas is now brought back into our own front yards. America's chickens are coming home to roost." Wright called on his parishioners to respond to this by rededicating themselves to God. Yet Reverend Wright's call for the U.S. to look in the mirror has been deemed unpatriotic--so unpatriotic, in fact, that the Republican opposition is turning these quotes into an ad campaign in the South.
But such challenging language would have been right at home alongside the sermons of the Puritans whom we celebrate at Thanksgiving, as well as alongside many of the speeches of Abraham Lincoln, Frederick Douglass, Martin Luther King, and Robert Kennedy.
The great Americans defined America as a chance for us not to flatter but rather to confront ourselves. They did not define patriotism as a smug legacy of entitlement, but as a universal challenge that always included the demand for self- correction. But we are so used to being raised on a rhetoric of artificial patriotism--the kind that you get to tune in to in a feel- good way just because you were lucky enough to have been born here and then can pretty much forget about--that this definition seems positively foreign today.
The phony patriotism we are fed starts with the misuse of sources that go back to the very beginning of the republic. John Winthrop was a minister who sailed with a small band of Puritans from England, where they were violently persecuted, to Massachusetts in 1630. When the emigrants arrived in harbor after the harrowing journey, he gave a sermon, "A Model of Christian Charity."
Since Reagan, modern politicians cite this sermon, saying that we are or that "we will be" a "city on a hill"-- implying that we are innately good and that God has set us permanently up above other nations to be an effortless role model to them.
But this is the opposite of the message of the author of the "city on a hill" sermon. The original phrase Winthrop used is from Jesus's Sermon on the Mount in the Gospel of Matthew: "Ye are the light of the world. A city that is set on [a] hill cannot be hid. Neither do men light a candle, and put it under a bushel, but on a candlestick, and it giveth light unto all that are in the house. Let your light so shine before men, that they may see your good works, and glorify your Father which is in heaven." Winthrop knew perfectly well that the "city on a hill" metaphor he was invoking was about doing good deeds, about behaving righteously and justly. The whole point of the metaphor in the Gospel that it is good works, and not ethnic or racial identity, let alone national identity, that gives "light."
But Reagan often misquoted Winthrop. Reagan declared, "Standing on the tiny deck of the Arabella in 1630 off the Massachusetts coast, John Winthrop said, 'We will be as a city upon a hill.'" Reagan not only got the verb wrong, he also regularly omitted the rest of the paragraph. John Winthrop did not write that we are like a "city on a hill," nor did he declare that "we will be" like one. Rather he said that we shall be like a city on a hill. "Shall" is a seventeenth- century conjugation of the verb "should"; it is not a declarative term, it is an imperative one. "Thou shalt not commit adultery" doesn't mean "You won't." It means "You should not," or "You must not." That is, Winthrop's is an active demand for goodness, not by any means a claim of goodness. Winthrop was saying clearly that we have to earn the blessing that is "America" and that the way we deserve it is by engaging continually in acts of righteousness. Furthermore, Winthrop wrote that if we were to fail to act justly, we would deserve the curses that would come our way--a point Abraham Lincoln would make just as confrontationally and unflinchingly more than 200 years later.
Both Winthrop and later Lincoln and Rev. Martin Luther King would say to Americans that if we failed to be just, we would deserve the hostility that would come our way from others, both from friends and enemies; deserve the darkness that God would have in store for us; and even deserve the famine or violence that we might have to endure. "If we act unrighteously," warned Winthrop in the often-elided paragraph, "... we shall open the mouths of enemies to speak evil of the ways of God and all professors for God's sake; we shall shame the faces of many of God's worthy servants, and cause their prayers to be turned into curses upon us till we be consumed out of the good land whither we are going."
Abraham Lincoln's second inaugural address, which he gave to the nation on March 4, 1865, confronts this as well. A terrible war had been ravaging the nation for years when Lincoln gave this speech. Almost one million Americans were dead or wounded, cities had been destroyed, and vast stretches of the nation had been reduced to wasteland. Surely this was a moment for a politician to assuage a nation or at the very least give the war some ("Mission Accomplished") spin.
Yet this speech is so radically different from any presidential speech in the midst of or at the end of a war that I had ever heard in my lifetime that I had to read it through several times to believe my eyes:
Fellow-Countrymen: . . . . On the occasion corresponding to this four years ago all thoughts were anxiously directed to an impending civil war. All dreaded it, all sought to avert it. While the inaugural address was being delivered from this place, devoted altogether to saving the Union without war, urgent agents were in the city seeking to destroy it without war--seeking to dissolve the Union and divide effects by negotiation. Both parties deprecated war, but one of them would make war rather than let the nation survive, and the other would accept war rather than let it perish, and the war came. . . .
Both read the same Bible and pray to the same God, and each invokes His aid against the other. . . . "Woe unto the world because of offenses; for it must needs be that offenses come, but woe to that man by whom the offense cometh." If we shall suppose that American slavery is one of those offenses which, in the providence of God, must needs come, but which, having continued through His appointed time, He now wills to remove, and that He gives to both North and South this terrible war as the woe due to those by whom the offense came, shall we discern therein any departure from those divine attributes which the believers in a living God always ascribe to Him? Fondly do we hope, fervently do we pray, that this mighty scourge of war may speedily pass away. Yet, if God wills that it continue until all the wealth piled by the bondsman's two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash shall be paid by another drawn with the sword, as was said three thousand years ago, so still it must be said "the judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether." [Emphasis mine; translation: "If God wills that the war shall continue until all the profit generated by enslaved Americans' 250 years of forced and unpaid labor shall be paid out by both sides waging the war, and until every drop of blood drawn from those Americans with the (overseer's) whip shall be paid by another drop of blood drawn by combat (blood from soldiers drawn by the violence of the war)--then, as was said three thousand years ago, 'the judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether.' "]
Was that message in our civics books or in our SAT history books? That Lincoln believed on a spiritual level that America would have to pay with blood and money for the crime of slavery?
Fake patriotism stressed that Dr. King said he had a dream. That is a very benign sentiment. We aren't taught that he gave a 1967 sermon at Riverside Church in New York in which, speaking about the fact that the war was sending the poor disproportionately to fight and die in Vietnam, he said, "I know I could never again raise my voice against the violence of the oppressed in the ghettos without having first spoken clearly to the greatest purveyor of violence in the world, my own government. . . . If America's soul becomes totally poisoned, part of the autopsy must read, Vietnam. It can never be saved so long as it destroys the deepest hopes of men the world over."
Imagine if a president told us Americans today, as Winthrop, Lincoln, and King did, that we are engaged in committing great wrongs in which blowback is inevitable and even spiritually just: the crime, say, of subverting democratically elected governments overseas and then subsidizing and training death squads to murder citizens, or waging illegal wars against nations not at war with us.
What if an American president told us to our faces that some of the hostility directed toward us now from the Middle East derives from our own policies, such as torturing prisoners, and that some of the hostility is justified? What if an American president held a mirror up to our own faces as Lincoln so outrageously did in his second inaugural address?
Would we assassinate him? Or would we look in the mirror?
Lincoln clearly suffered personally when he fell short of what he knew he was supposed to be. The great patriots all believed that true Americans should suffer if they looked in the mirror and saw that they fell short. Lincoln once wrote a friend, Joshua Speed, who had advocated his right to own slaves and had argued, as many did at the time, that that right was enshrined in the Constitution. Lincoln noted that one reason he opposed slavery was that it made him feel personally miserable: "You know I dislike slavery. . . . I also acknowledge your rights and my obligations under the Constitution in regard to your slaves." But Lincoln went on with a seemingly casual aside: "I confess I hate to see the poor creatures hunted down and caught and carried back to their stripes [lashes] and unrequited toil; but I bite my lip and keep quiet."
He then evoked an image that would be emotionally unanswerable:
In 1841, you and I had together a tedious lowwater trip on a steamboat from Louisville to St. Louis. You may remember, as I well do, that from Louisville to the mouth of the Ohio there were on board ten or a dozen slaves shackled together with irons. That sight was a continual torment to me, and I see something like it every time I touch the Ohio or any other slave border. It is not fair for you to assume that I have no interest in a thing which has, and continually exercises, the power to make me miserable. You ought rather to appreciate how much the great body of the Northern people do crucify their feelings, in order to maintain their loyalty to the Constitution and the Union. I do oppose the extension of slavery because my judgment and feelings so prompt me, and I am under no obligations to the contrary. If for this you and I must differ, differ we must. . . . As a nation we began by declaring that "all men are created equal." We now practically read it, "all men are created equal, except negroes." When the Know Nothings [a racist group] get control, it will read, "all men are created equal, except negroes and foreigners and Catholics." When it comes to this, I shall prefer emigrating to some country where they make no pretense of loving liberty--to Russia, for instance, where despotism can be taken pure, and without the base alloy of hypocrisy.
Lincoln pointed out that the Northerners who opposed slavery had to "crucify" their feelings about it to carry on with business as usual. From a shift in consciousness, action--a bloody war and the Emancipation Proclamation--followed; but the war that was waged and the laws that were passed were outcomes first of a change in consciousness.
Is the way Winthrop, Lincoln, and King asked their audiences to be patriotic--that is, to face themselves--the way commentators and political leaders ask us to be patriotic today?
Would we experience our own gift of freedom more intensely if our leaders demanded this of us in calling us to patriotism, and if we demanded such moral clarity of ourselves?