This Is Not a Horrible Thing to Say

03/02/2015 04:03 pm ET | Updated May 02, 2015

The late Reverend William Sloane Coffin, Jr., former Yale University Chaplain and legendary civil rights and peace activist, described his relationship with America as that of a critical lover. Coffin was my friend and musical partner for 15 years before his death in 2006. While I am not religious, Coffin's inclusive Christianity was sufficiently wide and generous to include me in its embrace.

I can state with confidence that he would have been deeply troubled by Rudy Giuliani's gratuitous attack on President Obama. As has been widely reported, Giuliani said, "I do not believe, and I know this is a horrible thing to say, but I do not believe that the president loves America. He doesn't love you. And he doesn't love me. He wasn't brought up the way you were brought up, and I was brought up through love of this country."

The only true phrase in Giuliani's statement is: "This is a horrible thing to say."

Perhaps another Coffin perspective is equally powerful in considering the Giuliani iteration of patriotic love. Coffin frequently reminded his friends and followers, "You can't take Scripture seriously if you take it literally." His rejection of Scriptural literalism did not dilute his faith -- it was central to his faith. His loving God encompassed both the "better angels of our nature" and the deep flaws of our humanity.

Love of country is thin if left unexamined. The current clash between the President's measured stance and the American exceptionalism espoused by Giuliani, is analogous to Coffin's understanding of love and faith. Mindless, uncritical faith, whether in God or country, is far more dangerous than no faith at all.

Patriotism and love of country require constant self-examination. The values and possibilities implicit in the founding of America are remarkably prescient: The balance of powers, the self-perpetuating mechanisms of governance, the ability to amend and revise the Constitution, which has guided us through several hundred years of growth and change. We can sustain our promise and our future only through humility and self-criticism.

The notion that Barack Obama doesn't "love America" is preposterous on its face. There has been no president in memory who has endured more vitriol in service to his country than Obama. While I have reservations about his politics, wishing he were more consistently progressive, he has weathered the slanderous attacks from his opponents with remarkable grace and dignity. He loves this country enough to retain confidence that it can live up to its ideals, even when it has strayed furthest from them.

As to, "He doesn't love you," this is a president who strives to love all of "you." It is easy to love those who are most like you. The self-adoration on the political right and among rigid conservative evangelicals is evidence of this easy love. Obama has shown no disdain, even for those who have lied about his ancestry, attacked his character, insulted his family, questioned his faith and employed racist epithets to diminish his stature as a man.

As to Giuliani's "He doesn't love me." Well... maybe not so much.

More importantly, "He wasn't brought up the way you were brought up, and I was brought up through love of this country." No, Mr. Giuliani, he was not brought up that way. And thank whatever God you worship (or don't) that he was not brought up this way. He was not brought up in an exclusive faith that technically denies equality to women. He was not brought up with unexamined white privilege. He was not brought up to believe poverty is a character flaw, and that punishment solves problems.

It has been our great fortune to have a president who retains grace and dignity in the face of dislike. We are lucky to finally have a leader who has also experienced the sharp pain of racism and sustained his patient hopes for America despite its flaws.

No, Mr. Giuliani, America needs critical lovers, not angry, opportunistic nationalists. It is you, not he, who represents the real threat to our future. And that, sir, is not a horrible thing to say.