The nature of patriotism is – or should be – a hot topic nowadays. Globalists argue that patriotism is outmoded and barbaric, and should be superseded by a devotion to the planet and the human species as a whole. Within the conservative establishment, the consensus until recently has been that patriotism can and should be retained—provided it is redefined to mean not a local attachment to a particular land and people, but a commitment to the liberal democratic principles of equality and liberty.
Just as they have little interest in marriage as traditionally understood, neither globalists nor conservative establishmentarians put much stock in patriotism as traditionally understood.
G.K. Chesterton saw patriotism quite differently, and his perspective warrants more reflection than it usually receives even in those Catholic circles which celebrate his work. Chesterton was convinced that a love for the particular – for a particular land, a particular language, a particular community – must reside at the heart of any Christian anthropology. At all times and throughout the world, he contended, sane men have felt some special connection to their native soil.
To the cosmopolitan, therefore, who professes to love humanity and hate local preference, we shall reply: “How can you love humanity and hate anything so human?” If he replies that in his eyes local preference is a positive sin, is only human in the sense that wife-beating is human, we shall reply that in that case he has a code of morality so different from ours that the very use of the word “sin” is almost useless between us.
That very last, mildly shocking statement is the most important made in Chesterton’s neglected essay “The Patriotic Idea”. Indeed, it may well be the most important statement Chesterton ever made—period—for it marks a metaphysical debate which divides mankind to this day: He has a code of morality so different from ours that the very use of the word “sin” is almost useless between us.
According to Chesterton, “a strange coldness and unreality” hangs about those who purportedly love homo sapiens while standing aloof from loyalty to any specific people. “They are dividing themselves more and more from men to exalt the strange race of mankind. They are ceasing to be human in the effort to be humane.” If Chesterton’s reasoning is correct, it is not truly philanthropy but a disguised spirit of misanthropy which drives most 21st century movements – from the open borders and animal rights movements to posthumanism. Loyalty to nation, loyalty to family, and even loyalty to the human species are giving way to a sentimental fixation with an utterly abstract Other.
Chesterton’s retort to those who promote the abolition of national and provincial identity is characteristically playful. It also expresses something very serious:
The man who loves his own children is much more universal, is much more fully in the general order, than the man who dandles the infant hippopotamus or puts the young crocodile in a perambulator. For in loving his own children he is doing something which is (if I may use the phrase) far more essentially hippopotamic than dandling hippopotami; he is doing as they do. It is the same with patriotism. A man who loves humanity and ignores patriotism is ignoring humanity. The man who loves his country may not happen to pay extravagant verbal compliments to humanity, but he is paying to it the greatest of compliments – imitation.
In the language of The Washington Post, Chesterton’s embrace of old-fashioned patriotism might be described as “nationalist,” but he is hardly alone. “If we ask where patriotism appears in the Decalogue,” the recently-canonized Pope John Paul II tells us in Memory and Identity, “the reply comes without hesitation: it is covered by the Fourth Commandment, which obliges us to honor our father and mother.” It would be hard to overstate just how radical and provocative this statement is, for it suggests that patriotism begins not with a love of freedom, as George W. Bush might have it, but with a love for one’s immediate ancestors. As this love extends outward, continues the pontiff, it becomes “a love for everything to do with our native land: its history, its traditions, its language, its natural features.”
By John Paul II’s reckoning, this love may even be an imperative of natural law:
Catholic social doctrine speaks of ‘natural societies,’ indicating that both the family and the nation have a particular bond with human nature, which has a social dimension. Every society’s formation takes place in and through the family: of this there can be no doubt. Yet something similar could also be said about the nation. The cultural and historical identity of any society is preserved and nourished by all that is contained within this concept of nation.
To be sure, as a Pole John Paul II was well situated to reflect upon the dark side of patriotism as well as upon its noble aspect. His countrymen had, after all, spent centuries coping with neighboring states’ imperial ambitions. So he advises the reader to distinguish “an unhealthy nationalism” from a patriotism of the healthier sort. How? By keeping in mind that the latter “is a love for one’s native land that accords rights to all other nations equal to those claimed for one’s own.”
Whatever one makes of their views, when it comes to patriotism both Chesterton and John Paul II clearly stand outside the pale for the movers and shakers of modern American media and politics. In discussions of immigration, global trade, and foreign policy, commentators and policymakers uncritically assume that even the mildest attempt to preserve national identity and culture is small-minded and xenophobic, and take for granted that nations exist only by convention rather than nature. The European heads of state who come closest to a traditional understanding of patriotism are Viktor Orban of Hungary and Beata Szydlo of Poland; it is no coincidence that both are viewed with suspicion if not animosity by the Western media-political establishment.
Yet it is hard to see how either Orban or Szydlo offer clearer examples of “unhealthy nationalism” than do the American leaders of the past several decades. It is neither the Poles nor the Hungarians but the Bushes, Clintons, Obamas, and Bidens who are in the habit of defining their own country as an unrestricted, never-ending revolutionary project. It is America’s policymakers who have claimed for the United States the unique and solitary privilege of judging other sovereign governments of the world, of deciding which deserve to remain standing and which must fall. Does such a presumed American privilege really accord “rights to all other nations equal to those claimed for one’s own?”
(Editor’s note: This essay was first posted, in slightly different form, on November 4, 2016.)
If you value the news and views Catholic World Report provides, please consider donating to support our efforts. Your contribution will help us continue to make CWR available to all readers worldwide for free, without a subscription. Thank you for your generosity!