The psychology of American patriotism

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According to a recent Pew poll, a staggering 44 percent of Americans report that they don’t often feel proud to be American, and only 28 percent rated America as the greatest nation on Earth.

This isn’t just a massive political problem; it’s a public health calamity.  Feeling part of something greater than oneself – especially one’s country – can be sustaining, both spiritually and psychologically. When a person feels he or she is a citizen of a country, or a supporter of a movement, or a member of a church that does not reflect his or her core identity, that person can feel rootless and adrift.

Does this mean that Americans by the tens of millions should leave now for new countries of which they can feel more proud?  I don’t think so.  I personally believe that the cause of American weariness is the failure of our nation’s leadership to tell the story of who we are, what we have done and how we can achieve more.

Too many Americans no longer feel part of the momentum of an America willing to declare itself on a campaign of discovery and liberty.  And there can be no such declaration without a declaration of American exceptionalism, of justifiable pride in our special achievements in so many arenas – including finding cures for deadly illnesses, landing on the moon and our desire to ensure the freedoms of others.  A flabby sense of community with all men just won’t do, because not all peoples of the world are true – and not all are just.

America was founded on the ideals of individual rights never before so boldly enshrined in a constitution.  America has defeated tyranny, again and again.  And America remains the world’s great hope – perhaps, its only hope – for turning back tides of darkness whenever and wherever they arise.

That’s who we are, and if an individual feels that call to greatness in his or her country, he or she is more likely to find what is great inside him- or herself.

A country without patriotism leaves its citizens either to find an internal north star, to find God, independently, or, sadly, to find themselves on Facebook and on Twitter and on video games like Grand Theft Auto – dispiriting, disconnecting, anxiety-provoking terrains that are really quicksand for the soul.

Former presidential candidate Newt Gingrich was onto something when he suggested that one focus of his presidency would be to colonize space.  America has always looked to achieve what seems to be improbable or nearly impossible.  Efforting such lofty goals as a nation becomes palpable in its citizenry – as does the lack of effort toward such goals.

John Kennedy was onto something when he declared Americans would “pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe to assure the survival and the success of liberty.”

Neither of these men invented American patriotism.  They sought to reawaken it. And the truth is that not all patriotism is created equal.  Being patriotic about any future state formed by Isis, for example, is the same as being psychologically ill.

The truth about the greatness of American patriotism is no different than the truth about the fact that bravery and decency and love for one’s self and others is somewhere inside every human being.  When it wanes, it testifies to a failure of leaders to speak to it and to nurture it.

But it’s no matter.  In the end, real American leadership will appear again; real American values will be rekindled; and American patriotism – that special kind of love of country that happens to be linked to the love of our best selves – will be renewed.  It is the great hope for mankind.  It did not come out of nowhere, and it will not retreat to nothingness.