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Sermons: “Patriotism

I think it’s appropriate to speak about patriotism on Martin Luther King’s birthday, and two days before we begin a new administration. What is patriotism? King needed years to move the country towards civil rights. But when he decided to voice opposition to the Vietnam War, many of his followers attempted to dissuade him. They felt that coming out against our policies would dilute what was becoming popular support for racial justice. Included was the fact that the President was a supporter of civil rights, but was pursuing the war. Many thought King would be labeled a traitor. His response was that ending discrimination in America and ending the massacre in Vietnam were not separate. And he paid a price for speaking out. Former supporters now labeled him a traitor. Unpatriotic, a “commie.” Yet, King’s decision now seems a gesture of selfless patriotism.

In the recent election, the American Flag was ever present in both campaigns. Apparently to remind us of the candidates patriotism. The more flags showing the better. And heaven help the candidate who failed to wear that American Flag Pin on his/her lapel. Never mind that that pin was in all likelihood fabricated in an overseas sweatshop, along with the yellow decal ribbons proclaiming support for the troops. I guess the theory was that without the symbol, one couldn’t be sure the candidate was truly a patriot. Personal memories, for me, of the Vietnam era “America…Love it or leave it.” bumper stickers.

The notion that patriotism consists of paying homage to symbols isn’t new. Governments have made that type of appeal throughout history. The Nazi movement in 1930’s Germany was fueled by symbolism. Stirring music, displays of uniformed men and military hardware…impressive and a trigger to mob mentality.

I think a person’s interpretation of the word “patriotism” tells much about that person’s views and era. Note that: Pro slavery was once patriotic; pro labor union was UN American. (seems there are those who still believe that one.) Today, being for marriage equality is looked upon by some as, “godless and unpatriotic.” Marginalizing people who hold minority or no religious views, is “patriotic” The list is endless.

Some in the media, public office, and other questionable sources, tell us that one’s degree of patriotism is governed by the degree to which they believe our country is the only repository of good in this world. . “Patriotism” wears many disguises in America. Some equate patriotism with militarism. That dangerous premise ignores that inconvenient portion of the Constitution which gives war making decisions to civilian, not military, authority. Only Congress can declare war. (at least it used to be so) Yes, we do still need armies, but abandoning diplomacy to the generals is like asking the poppy farmer to head the war on drugs. If war ceased being, there’d be a lot of unemployed Admirals and Generals. But turning over foreign policy to the military does something else, less obvious but possibly more insidious: It gives cover to those who actually have the responsibility to make war.

So, how do we define patriotism? The simple “my country right or wrong” brand is easy as are all simplistic answers. I believe Civil disobedience is a more complex form of patriotism. How many laws did King break to further the cause of justice? Respecting unpopular points of view is patriotic. Threatening those views is not. Would wearing a flag pin make me a patriot?…or does believing in what that flag was meant to represent? So many who use that flag pin as a litmus test seem to feel that when I voice opposition to policies I believe are wrong I am unpatriotic. What would Thomas Jefferson, John Adams and Thomas Paine do? Well. We KNOW what they did when they tired of paying homage to an unresponsive government .

I think most would agree that Jefferson was an American Patriot. Yet Jefferson opined that it was the right…no….the RESPONSIBILITY, of the citizenry to monitor the actions of our government, and when necessary, remove that government. What would the right wing windbags make of that? Would Jefferson be thought of as a traitor by todays standards? Would they think it unpatriotic? I imagine a 1776 version of Fox News getting daily talking points from the King of England, and spouting the premise that questioning and civil disobedience were unpatriotic and TREASONOUS. (see Boston Tea Party.)

I’d love to be considered patriotic. If only I could believe that my country ALWAYS did the right thing. If only I trusted our leaders to uphold constitutional rights. If I could believe that the lack of concern shown while New Orleans was drowning had nothing to do with a disregard for poor and powerless people. And if I could believe our leaders only went to war as a last resort, I might be considered patriotic, especially to those with an eleven year old mentality. But I can’t do those things; if I did, it wouldn’t be patriotic. It would be an insult to the founding principles of America, and paying homage to the SYMBOLS of America, while trashing the idealism upon which it was founded. And it would be dishonest.

I am incensed by many who call themselves “conservatives.” I think it’s a perversion of the term. A famous conservative, Barry Goldwater once said one could not be a conservative without being a conservationist. “Mr. Conservative” as Goldwater was often called, also noted that he really was more interested in his co pilot’s ability to fly an airplane than with whom they sleep. Today, that’s political heresy. Todays so called conservatives make homophobia and environmental denial pillars of their philosophy. People who believe in conserving our natural resources and not killing our planet are called “tree huggers.” And voting for human rights is a plot to destroy marriage and, probably, civilization.

Can UU’s be patriotic? The real question is are we CONSIDERED so by the majority? If one takes the position that blind obedience and symbols represent patriotism, then I don’t know too many UU’s who pass the test. Waving the flag doesn’t take thought….just some muscle. Maybe that’s the difference between those who see every action our leaders take as patriotic, as opposed we who feel that it is the patriotic DUTY of each of us to evaluate, and oppose when appropriate. A few years ago, I mused about the difficulty of UU’s to prostelylize. I think our lack of absolutes hinder us in that, as well as an inablility to fit today’s definition of patriotism. Free thought and no dogma. So be it. It is hard for undisciplined people to be disciples…of anything including mindless patriotism.

Can you imagine how the government in 1939 Germany defined patriotism? Did Hitler have a brain numbed media to reinforce the Nazi version of patriotism? And consider the irrefutable truth that America was a legitimate British Colony in the 1700’s…what was the definition of patriotism to those British Colonists?

Listen to the“my country right or wrong” bunch, and they’ll accuse anyone who questions the erosion of civil rights of being un-American. And part of this is the effort to merge religion with the government. To many it’s an integral component of patriotism. If you aren’t a Christian, can you be patriotic? Can an Athiest be patriotic? Not if you watch Fox News. Simply inferring that a candidate was Muslim was enough to smear him. Could our founders, who specifically stated that this country was NEVER to have a religious test for public office abide this? But then, repealing portions of the constitution seems very patriotic lately. Could a UU pass the test? I don’t think so. And while this country was clearly founded on a secular foundation, reactionary voices now spout out the term “secular humanist” as a curse. Most religions are based on some really wonderful suppositions. (Sometimes called ‘facts’ or ‘truth.’) Each tells me what is good and what is evil. How I should live and what I must reject. So many memorize those rules, while forgetting the central tenet of every religion…It starts like this..‘do unto others….’

But as some polititions have perverted democracy, so have some clergy perverted religion. Rather than exercise the golden rule, they spend time judging others, and segregating them by whatever is then convenient, sexual orientation, political philosophy, and whatever self serving interpretation of scripture is. Gays are bad…Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, etc. will all burn in hell. It is my sacred duty to compel you to believe as I do. And if I fail to convince you, then I have to kill you.” (of course, I do so for your own good.) In the name of God, they pervert religion. I think that philosophy makes religion a sham. Hindus and Buddhists preach universal love without judgment of others….more humane. But I haven’t evolved to the point where I believe in a world where evil doesn’t exist.

One of the right’s favorite times of year has just passed. It is that annual self indulgent paranoia called “the war on Christmas.” You said happy holidays! It’s Christmas! You are a secular humanist.” I ask: Must a Jew or Muslim embrace Jesus in order to be an American?

There are so many things I’d really like to believe. I like the notion that beneficent space aliens will soon come and teach us to ban all evil, cure all diseases and create paradise…but I don’t count on it. That belief, I think is a modern day version of traditional religion. Do sentient beings inhabit other corners of space? Probably.But are they perfect godlike creatures? I doubt it. And if they are perfect, why on EARTH (pun intended) would they want to come here?

I’d love to believe that technology will solve all problems, do away with sickness, and invent our way into a world of cleanliness and sustainability and yet have unlimited access to power sources to run our planet. This is currently a popular idea, and, again, I love it. It means having it all, with NO sacrifice. How appealing. I WANT to believe this one. But I have serious doubts.

Patriotism is probably a good thing. But maybe a sharper definition would help. Here are a few thoughts. I’m certain you can add your own.

Believing my country can lead the world towards PEACE is more patriotic than knowing we can vanquish anyone in war: I think the many thousands of citizens who took to the streets prior to the invasion of Iraq were patriots in the true spirit of our founders. It is patriotic to recognize and HONOR the separation of religious belief from the governing of our country. Keeping in mind how many came to America to escape regimes where the line between government and religion was blurred, or simply ignored. The rights of the minority must never be compromised by the will of the majority…to do otherwise is UN patriotic and anathema to the constitution: I believe torture is un-American, as is the de facto repeal of the right of Habeas Corpus, and that this nation was founded on the premise that it be ruled by LAWS and not by men. George Washington was offered the position of KING. His wise refusal was a lesson: we do not benefit by mimicking that which we despise. And yet we hear constantly that “Well, they do it, so why shouldn’t we?” A true patriot would say that by mimicking that with which we disagree is surrendering.” We do not spread democracy by ignoring democratic ideals. When we become what we purport to fight against, we are committing treason. And that treason is no less so when our leaders do it. And when we send our children off to fight and die in wars of choice, it may be hubris, or empire building, or material gain… but it is NOT patriotism. And even less tolerable when those who do so have cowered when they were called. Not patriotic…not Christian, and un American. If there is a hell, I believe there is a special place reserved for that bunch.

Will history judge those who speak out against war as traitors or patriots? What of those in support the right of every loving couple to be married. Blasphemous? And, is there any doubt upon which side of those issues Dr. King would stand? Is it patriotic to, as many on the right have already begun, to be calling for failure of a president even before he’s taken office? That is antithetical to both democracy AND religion. I cannot believe in that.

Tomorrow I will march in honor of Martin Luther King’s birthday. And in two days, my heart will swell with patriotic pride as a man raises his right hand and is sworn is as president. And I wonder: if Dr. King had obeyed every law..had kept his thoughts about Vietnam to himself...if hundreds of thousands had decided it would be unpatriotic to object to slavery, segregation, and wars for profit. If we’d remained silent, could this have occurred? No…the “love it or leave it” crowd could never have accomplished these things.

So I’m putting on this symbol. I’m unwilling to cede this flag to those who subvert its ideals. It’s my flag, and I’ll wear it because of the principles it was meant to represent. When we decide that this nation is a force for good, we deserve the title patriot. In the family of nations we will act as any good family member. Treating others with understanding when we have differences is patriotic. And I hope that those who would call themselves patriots will recognize that the kind of patriotism this flag was meant to represent is: King’s humility and love, not Cheney’s swagger and torture. Airplanes dropping food packages and medicine, not bombs. A government that tries to resolve differences thru discussion, not threats. This week might just be a beginning to let the rest of the world see America for what we were always meant to be…not the abyss into which false patriotism has sunk us. If we do this, all the world and all the world’s GODS will join us in blessing America. And patriotism will have prevailed.

Copyright: The author has given Unitarian Universalist Association member congregations permission to reprint this piece for use in public worship. Any reprints must acknowledge the name of the author.

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Last updated on Monday, March 25, 2013.

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