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Flying the colors


It looks like a kind of second flowering of spring in early autumn, the way the flags have sprouted everywhere since Sept. 11. Out of the ashes in New York, Washington and Pennsylvania rose a common civic-mindedness completely unprecedented in the lives of many of us, especially those born after 1962. The strokes that felled the towers probably also ended the ages of cynicism, irony and post-Cold War floundering, replaced by something that as yet can’t be named, but at its birth is marked by patriotic fervor.

“Unspeakable grief and pain have also given birth to a new sense of unity and have given the nation a chance to show its true character,” read a statement from Pax Christi USA, the national Catholic peace group, released Sept. 26.

This surge of patriotic feeling that has washed over the country is characterized by people finding ways to honor the blessing America has been and promises to continue to be. Firemen and police officers are celebrated for their heroism and courage rather than their celebrity status or stock options. There is an expectation that government leaders drop partisanship and come together to make good decisions. The American flag now represents a national community, united by the common experiences of the attack and the remarkable heroism and generosity in its aftermath.

This fervor has caused activists, comedians and intellectuals to mute criticism, to “watch what they say,” in the words of White House spokesperson Ari Fleischer. It has sent Arab-Americans and others who look and dress similar to those in the Middle East to take cover indoors. It has led to arrests and lock-ups of immigrants without explanation.

The patriotic fervor brings together God and country. We witness organized religion serving the nation: from the funeral of a brave Franciscan priest who died ministering to firemen to prayer services followed by military jet flyovers. Some are already warning against using God as a cheerleader for our foreign policy and military strategy.

Patriotism seems especially strong among the millions of Americans under 40, the ones with no memories of unpopular and indecisive wars.

  • At the public high school in Jonesboro, Ga., students who were preparing for homecoming celebrations had chosen the theme “Old School.” Each class had been asked to construct a float representing different decades; students were searching thrift shops for poodle skirts and tie-dyed shirts. After Sept. 11 the theme changed to “Pride and Patriotism,” and students have emptied local stores of red, white and blue crepe paper.
  • The Pledge of Allegiance, overlooked in some places for a long time, has been dusted off and promoted in schools across the nation. The Alabama state legislature passed a non-binding resolution last week to incorporate patriotic education into their state’s schools’ daily curricula. A civic group in Orange County, Calif., established a synchronized recitation of the Pledge in county schools every 12th day of the month.

The sense that we are part of a national community aroused by the attacks, symbolized by flying the stars and stripes, is in evidence as well in our front yards and workplaces, and fluttering on radio antennas during the daily commute.

The strong emotions of patriotism were not exactly forgotten but certainly had become sequestered, especially after the McCarthy era and the Vietnam War. In many ways they had become the exclusive property of conservatives in recent decades. Now even “bleeding hearts” can be patriots.

George Packer, writing last week in The New York Times Magazine and referring to his own upbringing in a liberal family, says about waving the flag: “My family would sooner have upholstered the furniture in orange corduroy than show the colors on Memorial Day. Display wasn’t just politically suspect, it was simple bad taste: sentimental, primitive, sometimes aggressive. … Sept. 11 changed all that, instantly.”

Now patriotism is solidly lodged in American hearts across the political spectrum.

This concept of patriotism is complex, the experts say, and it has an evolutionary history.

Three thousand years ago Spartans saluted the city gods and marched to war, expecting to come back with their shield or on it, but secure in knowing that city-state and cause were in one accord with divine will. Patriotism became more problematic with the coming of Christianity and its imperative to render differently to Caesar and to God. Even more of a challenge to the desire to knock heads in the name of the fatherland was Jesus’ and the gospels’ overarching insistence on nonviolence, a message, Gandhi once remarked, that everyone can see plainly -- with the exception of most Christians.

Then came the United States with its founding principles expressing rights rather than duties. Patriotism, in a country made up of people who are not all descended from the same ancestor or even speaking the same language or professing the same religion, becomes even more complex. Many recent immigrants from repressive regimes know exactly why they are patriotic, yet in general our patriotism is more creedal than it is linked to a motherland or to blood ties.

What does it mean to be patriotic while living in a democracy? Can one be a faithful disciple of Jesus and a patriot? NCR talked to theologians, professors of government and political science, and peace movement and spiritual leaders from around the country to find out more.

Patriotism in a democracy

During the Seattle protests against the World Trade Organization two years ago, demonstrators pointed to activities there and declared: “This is what democracy looks like!”

What does patriotism -- and the sense of community that comes with it -- look like in Sept. 11’s aftermath?

  • Construction workers use their vacation to help remove concrete rubble at Ground Zero in New York. People line up everywhere to give blood. Charitable donations swell the Red Cross coffers. Kids sell flags instead of Kool-Aid to raise money for victims. President Bush’s approval ratings soar from 51 percent to 86 percent. Women across the country volunteer to accompany frightened Arab-Americans and foreign nationals from Middle Eastern countries on their daily errands. Family and loved ones become a priority: In 10 days following the attacks, 400 Houston couples withdraw their divorce documents prior to court proceedings, according to a Newsweek report.
  • In Bridgeview, Ill, outside Chicago, angry Americans march on a mosque waving flags and shouting “USA! USA!” before being turned back by police. In Suffolk County, N.Y., a man screaming that he was “doing this for my country” tries to run down a Pakistani woman with his car.
  • In her syndicated column, Ann Coulter writes these words: “We know who the homicidal maniacs are. They are the ones cheering and dancing right now. We should invade their countries, kill their leaders and convert them to Christianity.”
  • Amid concerns about a failing economy, consumerism is offered as a patriotic act, demonstrating that Americans won’t allow normal patterns to be interrupted. The tricky challenge for merchants is to get people excited about buying again without offending them. Lee Scott, the chief executive officer of Wal-Mart, told associates in a videotaped address to be even more friendly to their customers. “We want our stores to be places of comfort. I think now you have to be even more understanding and kinder,” said Tom Williams, a company spokesman.
  • A banner on America Online’s welcome page a week after the events asks “Is it OK to be happy again?” and directs one to experts’ opinions on the question at a site on their family page.

There is as much diversity in our national brand of patriotism as there is in the country itself.

“Patriotism in most countries is associated with thankfulness to forbearers that made life possible, to a past that has given a tradition of worth,” Stanley Hauerwas, professor of theology at Duke University in Durham, N.C., told NCR. But that’s not American patriotism, he said. American patriotism doesn’t give thanks to a past that has made us who we are, according to Hauerwas. Rather, our patriotism is embodied in universal ideas of liberty and justice.

“Ironically that’s how American patriotism became a form of imperialism,” he said, “because we say what we celebrate about our country is what any right-thinking person would want to celebrate about their country. We think our patriotism gives us the right to tell the rest of the world how to act, and then we get angry when the rest of the world doesn’t like it when we tell them how to act.”

Hauerwas said that what happened at the National Cathedral in Washington at a prayer service on Sept. 12 was objectionable to him. “George W. Bush reiterated in the midst of an Episcopal Mass that we were going to take vengeance.”

Lynette Spillman, associate professor of sociology at the University of Notre Dame in South Bend, Ind., has taught courses in patriotism. “Patriotism is common everywhere,” she told NCR. “When people are surveyed worldwide, 90 to 98 percent always say they identify with their country. The character of that national identity may differ if you are an Australian, like me, or a citizen of France or the U.S. but that psychological identification with the country is strong.”

A hundred years ago, the emphasis in patriotic celebrations was on how America represented freedom and especially progress to the rest of the world, according to Spillman. “That has changed. Now there’s more talk about U.S. internal diversity, this country being the great melting pot” The patriotism on display in recent days has showcased unity in the midst of our diversity.

And the flags on display, fluttering next to the candles at makeshift memorials to the missing, suggest there’s a deeper context to that patriotism.

‘I’m not in shock!’

Along with the patriotism came a surge of religious activity. Churches, synagogues and mosques swelled with people who came to pray for victims and seek comfort and hope for themselves. Flags hung behind altars and pulpits.

Attendance at Mass in the Newark, N.J., archdiocese of Newark was up about 20 percent three weeks after Sept. 11, officials there say. St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York has added daily Masses to its regular schedule. Sales of vigil candles are up 30 percent, according to a Newsweek report.

Meditation sessions at the Fire Lotus Temple at the Zen Center of New York have been filled beyond capacity. Vietnamese Buddhist monk and peace activist Thich Nhat Hanh gave a talk on embracing anger to a crowd that overflowed the huge Riverside Church on the Upper West Side in New York.

A week before the Sept. 11 attack, newspapers were full of the controversy over Congressman Condit and the death of pop star Aaliyah. Now several weeks later it seems that one act of terror has completely reshaped the globe, that history is on the move again. Significantly major shifts have taken place in the world. The sporadic global activism that characterized U.S. foreign policy in the last 10 years has given way to new national focus and purpose. Events unimaginable even a few years ago are being discussed, such as the possibility that Russia might join NATO in the near future.

The seismic activity in global and national politics seems to be mirrored by upheavals in the nation’s soul as well.

News reports in the last few weeks show evidence of ordinary citizens finding energizing new purpose in their lives. Our self-absorbed cocoon of gratification and improvement gives way both to patriotic fever and moves toward a spirituality that seems grounded in community and compassion.

The inspiration for this shift comes in part perhaps from the story of passengers on the fourth jet, who already knew from their cell phones that their plane was part of an attack, and who apparently succeeded in plunging the plane to the ground and themselves to certain death, thus sparing hundreds more or maybe preventing the unthinkable spectacle of the White House destroyed in a jet fuel explosion.

Where is the importance of a life spent acquiring money, title or celebrity now that we have seen the selflessness of ordinary citizens, such as firemen rushing to help others oblivious of their own safety? “These are ‘vocations of valor,’ ” Bishop Kenneth Angell of Burlington, Vt., told an assembled gathering of firefighters, policemen and rescue workers at a prayer service last week.

On Sept. 11 a policeman tried to help an investment banker who had fled the twin towers and seemed to be in shock. “I’m not in shock,” the banker replied, “I like this state. I’ve never been more cognizant in my life.”

“This affirmation of what is best in America, the excitement and energy that accompanies it, is good,” Rabbi Michael Lerner, author of The Politics of Meaning: Restoring Hope and Possibility in an Age of Cynicism, told NCR. “We Americans have long been hungering for meaning in our lives, something that transcends mere competitiveness and acquisition.” The patriotism on display is an understandable meeting of deep human need with a new purpose, Lerner said.

“The problems come if and when people have learned to de-sanctify the ones who are not included in this patriotism,” he said. “When we fail to feel the pain of those outside our circle who are suffering, we end up creating a world in which these kinds of terrible acts of violence become more common.”

Questions about the flag waving from pulpits and on altars are being debated and spoken about in opinion pages, classrooms and pulpits around the country.

Is this a patriotism that holds our country’s actions to the light of Christ? Is there danger of an unholy righteousness sprouting from this alliance of patriotism with God? Is might and retribution a sensible response in a world where anyone with a flight simulator and enough hate can change city skylines?

“I think there are at least two versions of patriotism,” Robert Johansen, professor of government and international studies at the University of Notre Dame, told NCR. “One is where people feel bonds with others of their own identity that are so strong they end up not valuing people outside their own group. In the other kind people feel bonds of caring and concern with others outside their own country.”

The second form is consistent with Christianity, according to Johansen. “This kind of patriotism has heard and taken to heart the parable of the Good Samaritan.”

Dangerous claim

At a prayer service Sept. 22, Bishop Edward K. Braxton of Lake Charles, La., proclaimed, “It’s dangerous to claim that ‘God is on our side.’ ” Making that assumption at a time of national crisis can “blind our moral vision,” he said.

“The spiritually more authentic and humble statement might be for governments, like individuals, to say they keep striving to be on God’s side,” he said. “They do this in times of conflict by seeking always to purify their motives and to act in ways that show genuine regard for fundamental moral principles.”

Jesus’ words about loving our enemies and praying for our persecutors are “hard to hear at this hour of excruciating pain,” he said, but “we will certainly not be on God’s side in this new ‘war’ if we close our ears to the words of Jesus.”

But patriotism has an important place in supporting a national will to respond to terrorism, according to Fr. Richard John Neuhaus, author and editor of First Things.

“ I don’t think anybody has said it better,” he told NCR, “than a second-century letter explaining to a pagan how Christians think. ‘For the Christian every homeland is a foreign country, and every foreign country is a homeland.’ It’s true 1,900 years later.” It’s a natural virtue to stand up for one’s own, especially when it’s under attack, according to Neuhaus. “It is part of the Christian life to belong to particular communities of love and loyalty.”

Neuhaus said he does not hear any noises from Washington that he considers nationalistic in the pejorative sense. “From President Bush we are getting an extremely calm and measured assessment of the circumstances in which we find ourselves,” he said.

One can be a Christian and a patriot, according to Jim Wallis, editor of Sojourners and author of The Soul of Politics, but “our Christian identity has to be primary,” he told NCR. We must evaluate our citizenship through the lens of our gospel values, he said, adding “It’s a healthy thing to have an American identity; I’ve been arrested 20 times now for opposing aspects of U.S. foreign policy, yet there are so many things about my country that I like. It’s partly because I love my country that I’m forced to oppose many of its policies.”

Some say that powerful weapons in the fight against terrorism will be the very values on which this country was founded -- respect for the individual, an instinct for fairness and law.

“We must insist that our response to terrorism is both true to our faith and true to the best of the American character,” Tom Cordaro, Pax Christi USA national council chairperson, told NCR. “Our most powerful weapons are the core values of what it means to be an American and a person of faith.” He said that we must reject the principle of collective punishment that was used with such ruthlessness by the Nazis and so many oppressors through history. “We are called to move beyond dangerously simplistic judgments that assume that those who do not share our views are our enemies.”

Margot Patterson, NCR senior writer, contributed to this story.

Rich Heffern is NCR opinion editor. His e-mail address is rheffern@natcath.org

National Catholic Reporter, October 12, 2001