Secularizing Patriotism

I grew up in a secular household that operated under Christian values but shunned the devotion to icons and symbols of Christianity. I was raised to value actions and ideals rather than symbols; in my family we were more likely to spend Sundays volunteering at a picnic for homeless families rather than at Sunday school. Turning ideals and values into action were what brought about change, not sitting in a room and congratulating one another on our moral superiority.

This is not to say that churchgoing folks don’t do wonderful work outside of the church. In my lifetime I’ve had the privilege of meeting wonderful people who are guided by faith in their quest to build better communities and close the gap between the haves and the have-nots. I have nothing but respect for those folks and welcome opportunities to collaborate with them when they arise.

Despite my secular upbringing there is one religion that I and most Americans are raised under from the day they’re born: Patriotism. Different dictionaries have varying definitions of patriotism with one underlying commonality: devotion and love for one’s country. If you look up the definition for the word patriot you find similar sentiments about individuals loving their country, with the added zeal of synonyms and related words such as “nationalist, loyalist, or jingoist.”

As a child I grew up with a collection of Old Navy 4th of July shirts. I waved flags and marched in parades, I said the Pledge of Allegiance daily throughout my public school years, and got upset with high school classmates who came back from Europe talking about how great Europe is and awful America is by comparison. In 2003 the War in Iraq challenged that patriotism, though I still held fast to many of the notions of American exceptionalism that had been engrained in me from childhood.

Fast forward nearly 15 years and I find myself grappling with what patriotism means in the 21st century. I’ve long felt disconnected from a lot of “patriotic” sentiment because of how often patriotism comes wrapped in dogma and icon worship rather than truly preserving individual rights and extending them to everyone. Four days ago I stumbled across a tweet that said “patriotism isn’t worshipping a flag and an anthem, it’s asking your flag and anthem to mean what they claim to mean” and I have been fervently re-evaluating my definition of patriotism since then.

As a person of privilege who has benefited from America’s better qualities and systems, it is easy for me to say that I believe America is built on sound yet poorly-executed ideals. I have seen America work for and serve people like me, and my privilege has played no small role in that. I grew up in one of the wealthiest counties in America, attended one of the best school systems in the nation and finished college with no student loans. Ask a woman my age who grew up 20 miles north of me in west Baltimore if America has served her as well as it has me and she may tell a different story. We might have access to similar systems and opportunities in the literal sense, but in reality if those good things are waiting at the 100 meter line I started at the 50 and she probably started at the starting line.

So when I see people chastise NFL players and other athletes who have been peacefully taking a stand and asking America to live out its values and foundation, I wonder what these people have against patriotism? Why are they chastising people who believe in America’s freedoms and wish to secure it for all Americans? When has blind loyalty brought about anything other than complacency and eventual catastrophe? And if you’re so concerned about respecting the rights that the military fights to protect, isn’t it more important those rights they’re supposedly fighting for are actually being extended to all Americans?

If you still see these protests as “disrespectful” I ask you to consider what you would deem to be an acceptable form of protest. If you don’t see a reason why people feel compelled to protest in the first place I ask you to consider what your patriotism is rooted in. Is your patriotism a secular one rooted in pride in your country’s excellence and the desire to continually grow and live to its full potential? Or is your patriotism rooted in zealotry, white supremacy and the need to place yourself above others who question your fragile dogma?

Like what you read? Give Sarah a round of applause.

From a quick cheer to a standing ovation, clap to show how much you enjoyed this story.