Speaker: Rev. Carolyn R. Brown
Collections of quotations about patriotism include diverse views on the topic. Samuel Johnson wrote Patriotism is the last refuge of a scoundrel. George Bernard Shaw predicted that You’ll never have a quiet world till you knock the patriotism out of the human race. Someone named Frank Hubbard is quoted as saying It seems like the less a statesman amounts to, the more he loves the flag. On the other side of the issue, Adlai Stevenson weighs in with Patriotism is not short, frenzied outbursts of emotion, but the tranquil and steady dedication of a lifetime.William Sloane Coffin wrote Surely the best patriots are those who carry on not a grudge fight but a lover’s quarrel with their country.
The reason patriotism gets a bad name is that it is confused with nationalism.
In a recent article in the UU World the Rev. Forrest Church proclaimed in his title: We Need More Patriots in the Struggle Against Nationalism. G. K. Chesterton wrote that America is the only nation in the world that is founded on a creed . . . set forth with almost dogmatic and even theological lucidity in the Declaration of Independence. He refers to the famous phrase that all are created equal. This idea extends beyond our borders. It has informed the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights. The world has looked to us to see how we have struggled in our journey to extend equality to everyone. A journey that is still not complete.
As we continue to struggle internally to uphold our ideals, we have lately taken a position of isolation and made unilateral moves that belie our commitment to democratic process. We have become the lone ranger in the fight against terrorism, which Rev. Church characterizes as the struggle between civilization and anarchy. He writes that this is a problem requiring international collaboration. Our nationalism must yield to patriotism, to cooperation with the world leaders to face the problems of the planet: terrorism, global warming; racism; tribalism; land mines; and threats to the health of both humans and other species.
I have traveled in many foreign countries. I believe that I live in the best country in the world. I have always exercised my right to vote and try to stay aware of what is going on in the world. I feel patriotic, I love my country right or wrong. I would like to be in a position to help make right what I see as wrong. This has been part of my journey over the past 40 years as an activist for civil rights. These days, however, when I am feeling most patriotic I am also feeling most defensive. I feel much the same way I felt thirty years ago explaining to my evangelical Christian relatives that I am a religious person a Unitarian Universalist. I talked and talked but it was of little use for they knew the right way to be a religious person and it did not include asking questions about their long held beliefs and creeds.
Growing up during the Cold War, I was proud to live in a free country. I felt sorry for all the teenagers in the former Soviet Union who had no rights and no opportunity, no future. They had only the party line, as we used to say. Everything we heard from the communist countries was the party line. Never did I imagine that my country would become a country with a party line. Never did I imagine that something like the events of 2001 would create a climate of fear that would lead to something as dangerous as The USA Patriot Act. Never did I imagine that millions of my countrymen and woman would protest against something like this. Never did I imagine that cities and towns all over the United States would pass ordinances pledging that they would not cooperate with this act. And never did I imagine that the president of the United States would so forcefully work to erase the division between church and state.
Adrienne Rich wrote: “A patriot is one who wrestles for the soul of her country as she wrestles for her own being.” I believe the soul of our country is at risk. I believe we must wrestle for it. I believe our times are so perilous that we must keep this struggle in the center of our consciousness, not just because it is so today, but because it has always been so. Look at our history. In times of crisis, civil liberties take a beating. In happened during World War I with those who opposed the war and it happened in the Red Scare that followed. It happened with the internment of Japanese Americans during World War II, and with the McCarthyism of the Cold War. It happened with the invasion of privacy by the FBI imposed on leaders of the Civil Rights Movement. And it is happening today.
I believe our democracy is threatened by the attitude towards dissent adopted by the Bush Administration. Early on in the efforts to combat terrorism after the 2001 attacks, the president stated that anyone who is not for us (the United States) is against us. This statement included international support and the support of citizens of our country. Attorney General Ashcroft questioned the patriotism of those speaking out for civil liberties: Your tactics only aid terrorists, for they erode our national unity and diminish our resolve. They give ammunition to Americas enemies and pause to America’s friends.
Patriotism is being defined these days by our administration as blind adherence to whatever rulings they propose, surrender to the authority of the administration, and suspense of any judgment against our government. Behind all of the flag-waving and parades, there is a reality about America, that we all know, that makes it great, but our freedoms are being curtailed in the name of that very freedom which we cherish. There seems to be a sort of pyramid of patriotism, with the Republican Party, the military, and law enforcement at the top, and everyone else somewhere down below, or worse crushed underneath. This is the image that I suggest needs to be challenged and changed, lest we find ourselves waving the flag and “standing united” for an America very different from the one that we would hope for.
Our constitution contains a Bill of Rights, ten amendments to the main document, created primarily to persuade skeptical colonists that they were absolutely guaranteed certain freedoms they had found wanting in the countries of their birth. Things like freedom of speech, press, assembly, and religion; no unreasonable searches and seizures; no taking of life, liberty or property without due process of law; right to a public and speedy jury trial, with counsel. The ninth amendment states that the people’s rights are not limited to the ones enumerated in one through eight. This became important in 1973, when the Supreme Court inferred a right to privacy, most famously in Roe vs. Wade, legalizing abortion.
The colonists who insisted on the Bill of Rights were smart, for maintaining such individual freedoms is difficult. In 1920, John Haynes Holmes, Unitarian minister of New York City’s Community Church for many years, helped found the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), an organization still extremely busy in its pursuit of keeping the Bill of Rights alive and well in our country. Some of us were angry when the ACLU supported the Ku Klux Klan’s right to assemble and march if they had the proper permits. The ACLU supported them, as it supporting Rush Limbaugh today, because it is of utmost importance that EVERYONE be free to live in the ways guaranteed by our founding document and the Bill of Rights. As soon as anyone including the executive branch of the government starts restricting the constitutionally guaranteed rights of any group, we begin a perilous slide down a slippery slope and in my opinion we are sliding as we speak. Our Bill of Rights will be severely eroded if we do not dissent loudly and in great numbers.
To me the very concept of patriotism has been corrupted with the naming of The USA Patriot Act. Did you know that The USA Patriot Act is an acronym for the Uniting and Strengthening America by Providing Appropriate Tools Required to Intercept and Obstruct Terrorism Act? This lengthy act is being used to spy on and to jail suspected terrorists without just cause and without due process. Just 45 days after the September 11th attacks, and with virtually no debate, Congress passed the USA Patriot Act. Under this act, law enforcement agencies can spy on you while you access the internet. They can access your private medical records, your library records, and your student records without a warrant and without probable cause. Furthermore, they can jail someone who is merely suspected of terrorism for months or even years without bringing charges against them. This legislation threatens the rights and freedoms that the founders of this country were struggling to protect, when they wrote the Constitution.
Congress passed this without much study and I believe it is safe to say that no one read the entire act, and they are now having second thoughts. It is my deep hope that Patriot II will not receive the support of Congress. We have seen the establishment of a Department of Homeland Security, which all of us accept as necessary considering the threat of terrorism. Yet this Department has to date failed to protect some leading possible targets for mass destruction, namely over one hundred chemical plants and the millions of people who could be sickened by an attack on them.
Other pieces of what I view as the corruption of Patriotism include the ubiquitous appearance of the American flag. Letters to the editor here in Wichita insisted that neighbors fly it in your yard or else. The flag appeared absolutely everywhere–cars, stores, on the entire front of one house, train stations, lapels, beach chairs, clothing–you name it. The sense that one must brandish the flag reminds me of the years of the Vietnam War controversy when we heard America, Love It or Leave It. This was another time when we were lied to by our government and our military leaders.
There was a district court decision recently to remove the words under God from the Pledge of Allegiance. Now the “One Nation Under God” campaign is in full swing. A constitutional amendment is proposed. We are not only under God, in some circles we now have become the new chosen people and “God Bless America” is used to underline how might makes right. “United We Stand” is the final straw in the corruption of the ideals of patriotism which include dissent as something guaranteed by the constitution.
I’m sure that we in this meetinghouse this morning have many different views on each of these topics I have raised–the policies of the Bush administration, the War on Terrorism, the USA Patriot Act, the War on Iraq–but my purpose in raising them is not to suggest that I have the only answers, or the best ones. My real concern this morning is the need to enlarge our perspectives of what is patriotic, and if we find ourselves at odds with our government or its decisions in recent time, not to surrender our claim to being patriots.
Once again, our principles become the lens through which we examine our government. They provide the theological and ethical values we can use to engage in measuring the agreement current administration policies have with our liberal religion. In my opinion the Bush administration has destroyed thirty years of progress protecting the interdependent web of existence of our environment, by giving in to the pressures of industry. Justice in human relations certainly is not present for the hundreds of so-called prisoners of war being held without access to legal representation. A free and responsible search for truth and meaning is impossible when our government engages in deleting information and government reports from their publications. The truth is not being shared in many cases because it would require protecting the citizens of our country from the excesses of big business. Profits seem to come before people these days. Remember I prefaced these last statements with the caveat in my opinion. To engage in such criticism is no less patriotic than any other form of patriotism. In fact, such criticism is essential to the reasons we have to feel patriotic about this country at all.
It is patriotic both to fight in a war and to fight against it. It is patriotic to wave the flag and perhaps to burn it. It is patriotic to obey the law but there are times when it is patriotic to break it.
“A patriot is one who wrestles for the soul of her country as she wrestles for her own being.” Adrienne Rich’s words bring to mind Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. who understood himself as a passionately patriotic American. He had the wisdom to claim the symbolism of the American flag which you will see in many of the photos from the civil rights era. In some marches there were dozens of people carrying the flag. Those on the other side of the struggle often carried the Confederate Flag. The civil rights marchers were wrestling for the soul of their country. They owned the flag in this struggle. They were rising up for their country, demanding passionately that America live up to its ideals. When the flag appeared at these demonstrations, it did not represent the government of this nation, it represented faith in the revolutionary ideals on which this country was founded.
Today I wonder what has happened to those ideals. Don’t we still believe in the language of the Declaration of Independence, the constitution and the Bill of Rights? If we do, it is time that we dissent about what our government is choosing to do, for we are an association of dissenters. Perhaps we might dissent about America following a path towards becoming an empire. Perhaps it is time we dissent against the loss of our rights to privacy. It is time that we that we hold our president accountable for his promise of humility, and his promise of support for education, by funding the leave no child behind initiative, and being honest about the lack of creation of jobs to replace the three million lost during his term in office. The other day I heard the president say that Congress passed his tax cuts in order to create jobs. He then said that the economic recovery is working. It may be increasing our Gross National Product, but no one is returning to work.
When democratically appropriate dissent has been suppressed, even in war time, it has resulted in harm to our system of government. It has damaged the body politic in ways that took many years to heal. We must pay attention to the history out of which we have come, as we move into a history of our own making. We need more patriots. We need you.