07/04/2006 12:03 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

How to Love Your Country

This Fourth of July it's right to spend some time thinking about what it means not just to be an American, but to be a patriot -- because the concept of patriotism itself is under assault in ways that remind me of a different time in our history.

When we protested the war in Vietnam some would weigh in against us saying: "My country right or wrong." Our response was simple: "Yes, my country right or wrong. When right, keep it right and when wrong, make it right."

I feel history repeating itself.

What did the United States Senate do before leaving town for the 4th of July break? In a summer when things are decidedly not right for American soldiers in harm's way in Iraq and Afghanistan, while their families at home are hit with record gas prices, health care costs a mess, and veterans still go without the health care they were promised, did we unite in some big hearted cause to make these urgent challenges right?

No. We debated a craven effort to amend the Constitution allegedly to protect the flag we all love. The Senate -- the place the original patriots -- the Founding Fathers -- imagined as the place big national issues would be addressed out of love of country, became a place where the Constitution itself was nearly shredded for political convenience, for ideology, for short term political gain and political timidity.

Make no mistake -- this wasn't a test of who loves the flag. But it was a test of who had the courage to protect the Constitution.

I love the flag for all the history, the glory, the promise, and the possibilities that are carried within its four corners. I will never forget seeing our flag draped over my father's casket and remembering that long ago he too served his country when freedom was threatened. I've seen the cloak of patriotism draped over the coffin of friends I lost thirty seven years ago, and too recently I've seen Old Glory cover the caskets of young men lost from Massachusetts in two new wars. Our flag is a stunning symbol of all that has made us who we are.

That's why I get so angry to see politics -- again and again -- fail to live up to our flag, and to our values -- in the way politics too often has become a food-fight, in the way news is too often treated as mere entertainment, in the way millions tune out because they're so sickened by what's happening they've given up on the idea of changing it.

We desperately need a real debate about patriotism -- about service, about American values.

We don't need another series of phony debates about whether we love our country, we need an injection of honesty about how to love our country.

I think patriotism starts with telling the truth. Truth is the American bottom line. I don't think it's an accident that among the first words of the first declaration of our national existence it is proclaimed: "We hold these truths to be self-evident...".

Patriotism also means dissent -- when it's hardest. The bedrock of America's greatest advances--the foundation of what we know today are defining values--was formed not by cheering on things as they were, but by taking them on and demanding change.

Patriotism demands we debate how we live by our principles and our values in the world. America has always embraced the best traditions of civilized conduct toward combatants and non-combatants in war. But does anyone think we're well served when leaders hold themselves above the law--in the way they not only treat prisoners in Abu Ghraib, but assert unchecked power to spy on American citizens? The Supreme Court certainly doesn't!

Patriotism demands telling the truth to Americans -- America can handle the truth about the Administration's boastful claim of "Mission Accomplished" in Iraq. The true pessimists are those who cannot accept that America's power and prestige depend on our credibility at home and around the world -- and the most dangerous defeatists, the most are those who invoke September 11th to argue that our traditional values are a luxury we can no longer afford.

But it's more than that. It's not just what we fight against, but what we fight for. Patriotism means not just ending this war, but preventing the next one -- to act now so that at some future date America will never have to fight for its economic security because we are permanently held hostage to foreign oil. Patriotism ought to be commanding us for the second time in our history to declare and win our independence, this time not from foreign rule but from foreign oil. To live out the patriotism of Abraham Lincoln who said we were the "last best hope of Earth," leaders should be insisting that we stop being the denier of global warming that endangers the Earth. Al Gore is a patriot this Fourth of July who is living out that kind of love of country -- and we need more like him.

We need a politics of national purpose -- that recognizes America has always been stronger when we have not only proclaimed free speech, but listened to it. A politics that's not afraid to fight for big ideas -- because, after all, there are no bigger idea than the ones on which America was founded.

So, on this Fourth of July, the bottom line is that we will only be stronger if we reclaim America's true character and strength -- if we declare our independence from a politics that lets America down --if we truly commit ourselves to the big hearted patriotism determined "to 'make it right' and "keep it right" once again.