Humanist Patriotism

This post originally appeared in The Shofar newsletter of Kol Hadash Humanistic Congregation in July 2018. 

As July 4 approaches, we can appreciate how complicated Humanist patriotism can be.

We are familiar with frequent connections of piety and patriotism. We are lucky the “Star Spangled Banner” was legally declared the National Anthem in 1931; after its popularity during World War II, we could have easily wound up with “God Bless America” instead. Despite the Bill of Rights’ promise to not establish religion, and Thomas Jefferson’s vision of “a wall of separation between Church & State,” presidents add “so help me God” to the Constitution’s prescribed oath of office, every presidential address ends with “May God bless the United States of America,” and for many it seems impossible to separate “God and Country.” Even my alma mater’s school song ends, “For God, For Country and for Yale”!

All this religious endorsement of American nationalism might turn us off only by association. Added to this, Humanists tend ask hard questions about group loyalty and identification. Does the group serve my needs and reflect my values? Is the connection meaningful, inspirational, beneficial, or simply a legacy of the past? It’s why many Humanistic Jews and their families have evolved from the religious institutions and traditions of their birth and upbringing. Internationalists have often been secular, since they see any human division by ethnicity, nationality, or religion as inevitably a hierarchy, a source of oppression and hatred.

Even if we try to be secular nationalists, our wider sympathies to all of humanity would seem in conflict with the inevitable prioritization of our national group over others, be it on immigration laws, humanitarian aid, or economic priorities. If we had to choose between the Bill of Rights and the United Nations’ Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which would we choose?

flag spots

Some years ago, a Kol Hadash member told me she was considering putting up an American flag on her house, but she didn’t want others to think she was “one of those people.” A friend of hers rebuked her, saying, “No one political perspective owns the flag – it’s your flag too!” Likewise, the moral psychologist Jonathan Haidt remembered that after 9/11, he put TWO bumper stickers on his car: an American flag and a UN flag!

The truth is that love of country is challenging. Sometime love means we forgive or ignore our beloved’s guilt, and sometimes love means we call on them to correct it. Those kneeling to call America to live up to its vision that “all [people] are created equal” can be as patriotic as those who serve in the military or those who sweat through their American flag boxer shorts. Loving and even prioritizing our family (or our country) does not mean betraying ethics and commitments to a wider world, provided that family or national loyalty does not supersede the humanity of those beyond it. If our nation does good in the world, we can be proud. If we fall short, we can pull together to do better.

So feel free to fly those flags, sing those songs, walk in those parades, feel those feelings. And also feel free to stand up for justice, to protest, to demand that America live up to its own ideals. If you need an alternative, you can always sing “Godless America” to the same tune!

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