The Patriotism of Deeds

Gravestones at Arlington National Cemetery, May 24, 2018. (Specialist Lane Hiser/US Army)
We are free, but we should view ourselves as free to pursue what is good and true.

Memorial Day at its best is a unique American holiday. It’s the day when patriotism is focused less on what we think about America and more about what patriots do for America. When we remember the fallen, we honor the ultimate individual act of love for a nation and its people — giving the “last full measure of devotion” in defense not just of American soil, but also in defense of the American idea.

In the age of Trump, there’s been much commentary and debate — including in the pages of National Review — about the difference between patriotism and nationalism. There’s been discussion about whether there is something unique about American patriotism, as distinct from the patriotism or nationalism that citizens of other countries feel for their own soil.

I think the answer is yes. There is something distinct about American patriotism, and that the best sort of American patriotism understands twin, interlocking truths — articulated by two Founding Fathers who were often fierce rivals, Thomas Jefferson and John Adams.

The first truth is encapsulated in some of the most famous words in the English language: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” According to this founding principle, government exists for the very purpose of securing these rights.

This truth made manifest in our constitutional republic is the heart of the American idea. It represents the notion that our shared liberty binds us together more surely than soil or blood. Indeed, if we rely on soil or blood to bind us together, our union quickly starts to fray in the face of two questions most nations (far more homogenous than ours) don’t have to answer.

Whose blood? Which soil?

When your nation spans a continent, a sense of collective place is harder to share. When your nation contains multitudes of virtually every race, creed, and color on planet earth, a sense of shared blood is nonexistent. But men and women of dramatically different heritage and fundamentally different place can and do unite around a shared idea — that each of us enjoys liberties so essential that our government is legitimate if and only if it guarantees their protection.

But organizing a nation around liberty brings with it a hidden danger, the danger of indulgence — the danger that a nation that protects the rights of the individual will become individualistic. And that brings us to the second essential truth of the American Founding (and thus, of American patriotism). This one from Adams: “Our Constitution was made only for a moral and religious People. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other.”

In other words, the patriotic citizen understands that his liberty is governed and ordered by a higher purpose. We live not for ourselves. We are free, but we should view ourselves as free to pursue what is good and true, to live what is good and true.

That’s but one reason why the spirit of our modern politics — excusing vice in the pursuit of alleged political virtue — is so toxic to our founding principles. Conservatives could succeed in jamming government back in its box, we could thoroughly and completely defeat political correctness and identity politics, but if the people who live in that new atmosphere of freedom are consumed with “iniquity and extravagance,” then we will live — as Adams warns — in the “most miserable Habitation in the world.”

It’s a sad fact of our modern times that our warring factions spend an enormous amount of time battling over whether the government is upholding its end of the social compact. We spend less time looking inward, pondering how we exercise our blood-bought freedoms. In other words, we debate whether our nation is worthy of our patriotism. We just assume we’re worthy patriots.

Memorial Day is exactly the time to question that assumption. It’s exactly the time to stand convicted of our own vice. We see the flags by the gravestones. We hear the mournful bagpipes playing “Amazing Grace.” And we’re reminded of the eternal truth that greater love has no man than when he lays down his life for his friends. And make no mistake, the men and women in those graves laid down their lives for friends, for family, for citizens they’d never meet, and for generations to come.

In the presence of that greater love, the least we can do is to commit to show a more ordinary love, a love that asks us to live with decency and honor. It’s a love that asks us to fulfill the purpose of man as articulated in Micah 6:8 — to do justice, to love mercy, and to walk humbly with God.

That’s the patriotic response to American liberty. That’s how a moral and religious people respond to the American Founding. That’s the patriotism of deeds.

David French is a senior writer for National Review, a senior fellow at the National Review Institute, and a veteran of Operation Iraqi Freedom.

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