Reflections on Patriotism

(Edited slightly to correct a few minor spelling and grammatical errors, and adding a few lines strengthening previous thoughts)

We (here in America; apologies to any international readers) have come to that time of the year in which we see a great show of patriotism on display. Flags sprout from lawns, siding, car antennas, and even ballcaps. Patriotic tunes fill the air. Public professions of patriotism become common. “I’m so proud to be an American,” we hear again and again; at civic lectures, in our Church services (particularly our LDS testimony meetings), and in public prayers of all sorts. “This is the greatest nation on God’s Green Earth.” People speak effusively about the accomplishments and wonderful attributes of our nation, the great abundance of blessings which the Lord has rained down upon us.

At times, I wonder if we aren’t somewhat similar to a Book of Mormon people. I’m not talking about the Ammonites, or the civilization following the visit of the Savior, or the People of Zarahemla.

No, I’m referring to the Zoramites of Antionum, visited by Alma the Younger during his ministry (Alma 31-35).

The Zoramites are renowned, among other things, for building a platform or podium, the Rameumptom, upon which they would stand to give their prayers as they “worshipped.”

15 Holy, holy God; we believe that thou art God, and we believe that thou art holy, and that thou wast a spirit, and that thou art a spirit, and that thou wilt be a spirit forever.
16 Holy God, we believe that thou hast separated us from our brethren; and we do not believe in the tradition of our brethren, which was handed down to them by the childishness of their fathers; but we believe that thou hast elected us to be thy holy children; and also thou hast made it known unto us that there shall be no Christ.
17 But thou art the same yesterday, today, and forever; and thou hast elected us that we shall be saved, whilst all around us are elected to be cast by thy wrath down to hell; for the which holiness, O God, we thank thee; and we also thank thee that thou hast elected us, that we may not be led away after the foolish traditions of our brethren, which doth bind them down to a belief of Christ, which doth lead their hearts to wander far from thee, our God.
18 And again we thank thee, O God, that we are a chosen and a holy people. Amen (Alma 31:15-18).

Now I would certainly not be so foolish as to suggest that we as a nation are denying the Savior, particularly in our Church services. But much of the rest of it seems uncomfortably familiar. Are we claiming that we, as Americans, are chosen above all the other nations and people? Don’t many of our words suggest that we feel God favors us? Do we take the abundance that we as Americans enjoy is some sign of the Lord’s favor or grace? Is this really patriotism, or is it nothing more than chauvinism?

A bit of clarification may be in order. Chauvinism has come to be synonymous with “misogyny” or “sexism.” But that is a fairly recent connotation, a shortening of the phrase “male chauvinism.” Chauvinism actually comes from the Napoleonic soldier, Nicolas Chauvin. Reputed to have been excessively zealous in supporting all things French, Chauvin’s name has become associated with “Prejudiced belief in the superiority of one’s own gender, group, or kind.”

I’ve always been a bit skeptical about apparent examples of chauvinism. At every level, it seems natural for us humans to want to put our own locale or group at the top of the pecking order. “Millville Elementary is the greatest school in the world!” “Kaysville is the best city in the world!” “Davis High School is the greatest school in the world!” “Utah is the greatest state in the nation/place in the world!” “The Anaheim mission is the greatest mission in the world ( and “our zone is the greatest zone in the mission!”, and so on down the line), “Acme, inc is the greatest workplace in the world!” and, of course, “America is the greatest nation in the world!”

Why would we say so? What quantitative evidence can we give? We make those claims simply because those are the places in which we currently are. If we were somewhere else, we’d be saying the same thing about that area. And in many cases, our association with those locals or entities (our k-12 school, where we serve a mission, where we grow up, and to a large extent, in which nation we live) is one in which we have little or no choice! Aren’t these claims then rather silly? What purpose does it serve to set our nation (or community at any level) above all others? Is that honest, sincere evaluation and praise? Or merely self-congratulatory boasting?

Aaron, one of the sons of King Mosiah, was wary about pride. He and his brothers were party to great miracles of conversion among the Lamanites. Yet as his brother Ammon gloried in the miracles, Aaron was cautious. “I fear that they joy does carry thee away unto boasting (Alma 26:10).

Ammon could honestly allay his brother’s fears (Alma 26:11). The Zoramites less so. Alma was greatly disturbed by the prayers of the Zoramites. He noted that “their hearts were set upon gold” and the other examples of abundance which the Zoramites enjoyed. He “saw that their hearts were lifted up unto great boasting, in their pride.” He lamented the fact that “they cry unto thee with their mouths, even while they are puffed up, even to greatness, with the vain things of the world (Alma 31:24-26).

The Lord is not the God of the U.S. He is the God of the entire world—even the entire universe. We are more alike as humans and children of God than we are different based on our national citizenship. We generally all want the same things. As He declared in his visit to the Book of Mormon peoples, our Savior is “the God of the whole earth (3 Nephi 11:14).” He is Lord of every nation, kindred, tongue, and people. He loves the citizen of Argentina, Togo, or Mongolia no less than he loves us in the U.S. He is, after all, “No respecter of persons: but in every nation that fears Him, and works righteousness, is accepted with Him (Acts 10:34-35).” He will grant us no special favors or indulgences because we are American.

Many nations throughout history have considered themselves favored in the sight of the Lord (or whatever deity they worship). But that belief can lead to very dangerous paths. From the subjugation of the entire Mediterranean world by the Romans, to the widespread appropriation of Native American lands and the destruction of Native populations under the banner of “Manifest Destiny,” to the plundering of native cultures in the Pacific, Africa, and Latin America by the U.S. and the European Powers during the Eighteenth and Nineteenth centuries, such hubris leads unerringly to the betrayal of all truly spiritual and humanitarian values.

There can be no doubt that this nation enjoys a great abundance. We currently enjoy an undisputed economic, military, and political advantage over every other nation on the planet. But we should be cautious about taking this as some sign of the Lord’s pleasure or favor. The Zoramites were blessed with an apparent abundance of material blessings, yet they could hardly be accused of pleasing God.

No, the abundance we enjoy is not a gift from our Lord in which to indulge (“hey, you guys are great. Here’s some money; have a night on the town on me”). Rather, that abundance and those blessings should be seen as evidence of a great responsibility. For “of him unto whom much is given much is required (D&C 82:3).” Or, to quote a more modern sage “With great power there must also come great responsibility.” 😉 It is incumbent upon us and our nation to promote through principled means the values upon which our nation was founded; to help secure peace, liberty, and democracy; to spread that abundance among all who lack. If we betray that responsibility through self-serving warmongering, and support of tyranny, and restricting true liberty, then we have great cause for alarm by virtue of the very fact that we have been so abundantly blessed: “he who sins against the greater light shall receive the greater condemnation (D&C 82:3).”

In other words, we are “elect,” in the words of the Zoramites, not by virtue of the wealth and influence itself, but only inasmuch as we use that wealth and influence to help other nations and promote moral principles.

I do not wish to sound like a Jehovah’s Witness. I respect their beliefs regarding nationalism, and do empathize with their philosophy in that regard to some degree. But I believe that there is nothing wrong with principled patriotism. The key is understanding the true nature of patriotism.

Real patriotism is so much more than simply adorning your body, home, or car with flags. As Bill Maher, political comedian, astutely pointed out, putting a flag on your car is literally the least you can do to support your nation. Displaying the flag makes one a patriot no more than simply having a cross on a necklace, a CTR ring on a finger, or a fish on one’s car makes one a Christian. Patriots with integrity should be less concerned with such overt, superficial gestures, and be more concerned with more meaningful expressions of patriotism.

There is value in recognizing and appreciating the positive aspects of any given place or institution, including the United States. This was perhaps the first nation on earth to be founded not on the basis of culture or race, but on moral principles. It firmly established the principles of the modern representative democracy, which include among others the idea of civil/human rights, governing authority derived from and accountable to the governed, and specific delineation of powers under that authority. It is likely due largely to the example of the United States that these principles have been spread throughout the world. The Lord has revealed through his prophets that the establishment of this nation and those principles was crucial to the restoration of the Gospel. And the U.S. has played a crucial role in preventing international catastrophe in a number of instances in recent history (such as WWII). It is indeed a land of great abundance and blessings.

But unlike chauvinists, truly principled patriots should be honest and realistic in their evaluations. They should not be carried away in grandiosity. Are there any freedoms we now enjoy not similarly enjoyed by the citizens of the other Western Democracies (Canada, Japan, Western or Northern Europe)? Yes, we know from the Book of Mormon and modern revelation that the U.S. is a land of Promise. But the Promised land of the Book of Mormon was hardly restricted to the land North of the Rio Grande and South of the Columbia River. Canada, Mexico, and the nations of South America are just as much a part of the Promised Land of the Book of Mormon as the U.S.

True patriotism does not entail glossing over the real negative aspects of our nation. While the U.S. may have been integral in the rise of the principles of the modern democratic republic and liberty, it lagged behind other developed nations in ending slavery and often in expanding civil rights and suffrage. Native populations have been cheated, betrayed, abused, displaced, dispossessed, and even actively slaughtered. Great industries and fortunes have been built on the backs and blood of labor and poor communities. While the U.S. has played an active role at times in spreading peace and civilization, it has also played a role in spreading violence and supporting governments antithetical to the values upon which this nation was founded, aiding and abetting—even itself committing—terrible crimes in other nations. We need to come to terms with those tragic and evil actions, and resolve through being informed and politically engaged not to permit those sins from being committed in our name in the future.

If we carefully preserve a sense of humility in our appreciation for our nation, are respectful of other nations and our place within the community of nations, seek to understand the nature of the principles this nation was established to protect, and avoid the sense of entitlement regarding our nation, we can through our integrity make the United States into the nation so many believe it to be.

Or we can succumb to the hubris which has led to the downfall of so many peoples before us.

The choice is ours.

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14 Responses to “Reflections on Patriotism”

  1. Cliff Says:

    Excellent Derek, just excellent!

    I am struggling as I write this comment, to craft a post describing what I know to be a conversation taking place in the many hearts and minds of my LDS friends, but which within the LDS community is muted, censored, or dressed in the subtleties of scripture so as not to betray a growing disillusion with LDS leadership and their effective alignment with the popular Republican priorities so clearly antithetical to true Christian principles.

    I hear in your writings a conversation unfolding daily but in very different terms, not among members, but between A member in the comfort of sympathetic gentiles safely outside the earshot of other brethren.

    Predictably in my experience with little prodding, the next conversation revolves around the best way to bring some reform to the church; from within or without. These are the members (Am I allowed to use the word brethren here as a non-member?) for whom I have the greatest respect.

    The premise of my next post is that these kinds of conversations are happening with a great deal more frequency than is or could be known by members or the leadership, by virtue of the strict conditions under which they occur.

    I invite your input if not a guest post on the subject.

    All my Best for the 4th – Cliff

  2. Derek Staffanson Says:

    Thank-you for your input, Cliff. I welcome a dialogue with members of other faiths on thoughts of morality, ethics, and politics here. I fear that my intensive use of LDS theology might reduce interest from “outsiders,” but since I’m trying to speak to the LDS community, and my political/social ideology is rooted in my faith, I can see no way of leaving the LDS references out. Quite a conundrum. I’m glad it didn’t dissuade you.

    Feel free to use the dialect of LDS culture. As far as I’m concerned, we’ve no monopoly of that language;)

    I can empathize with your LDS friends who confide primarily with “gentiles” about their concerns. Fortunately (or unfortunately, depending on how you look at it), it is in my nature to confront issues head on and to try to shake people up and get them to look at things from a new perspective. Brave or bull-headed? Beats me;)

    I would caution that I don’t consider myself really disillusioned with the LDS leadership or trying to reform them. I do sincerely believe in the essential Gospel as taught in the LDS faith. I have faith in the doctrinal teachings of the Prophet, though there are times I question policy decisions. My biggest concern is more with the conservative character of LDS culture. As far as I can discern, that development was at least as much from the bottom upward as top-down.

    Forgive me if it seems like quibbling, but I feel the distinction is important.

    I look forward to reading and commenting on your upcoming post. I’d be willing to discuss a guest post, time permitting.

    Thanks again!

  3. Cliff Says:

    Derek,

    3 days and 4 re-writes later I had to let go and post. I’m not at all happy with it. It’s just such a big and complex issue.

    I did in the process point to you in a potentially unwelcome categorical way. I ‘m happy to revise my choice of words, or simply inject your own comments. I just don’t want to offend you or anyone (except mean people).

    Problem is, you Mormons are a very diverse bunch o’ folks.

    Given your clearly powerful intellect combined with an equally powerful testimony, one might reasonably expect a train wreck.

    Someone (I think accurately) once said “faith is the antithesis of reason”, which explains your dilemma “Brave or bull-headed?”

    Are you from Utah?

    Why don’t you just right a response that I can top post? We can do Lyon & Staffanson ala Pignanelli & Webb. You just need to send me a headshot and a short bio for the authors page.

  4. Cliff Says:

    Just in case you or someone reading this is interested, this Nichols guy comments DEMAND a response.

    http://oneutah.org/2006/03/22/democratic-party-in-utah-may-be-saved-by-republicans/

    Any takers? I’ll top post it.

  5. Derek Staffanson Says:

    Cliff I’ll be responding to your last posts via e-mail.

  6. sharon Says:

    Derek:

    You have an interesting site here. I inadvertently came upon it when I was using google. I wasn’t looking for any liberal viewpoints or commentary on the LDS faith but I just happened upon your site. Maybe it was fate (twilight zone music). haha

    Your views are very similar to my own. I describe myself as a Liberal Navajo Mormon who made the choice (against the wishes of her white foster parents…see explanation below) to attend a catholic university…in short, I’m a Navajo Mormon Irish! haha So perhaps I am an anomaly…of a sort! But I am interesting character, nonetheless. haha

    I am a convert to the church. I was taught by missionaries and baptized at the ripe ol’ age of ten. After my baptism my mom shipped me off to Utah–courtesy of the missionaries who baptized me and informed my mom about the “Lamanite Placement Program.”

    I am a product of the “Lamanite Placement Program” and have mixed feelings about the whole experience. But I can not deny that I am who I am today because of my acculturation, assimilation, and indoctrination into white Mormon Utah culture.

    My experience was that of a young Native American girl taken from my reservation to live in a world that was quite foreign to my own. If it was upto me I would have never gone on the program. Each year I begged my mom to let me stay at home to go to school. Each year she shipped me back upto Utah on that dreaded greyhound style bus.

    My Mom is the one that pushed me to experience Utah Mormon culture. In her view, she was allowing me to have the opportunity to empower myself with a “white man’s education” that I could not otherwise obtain living on my reservation.

    I have had issues with the church and my faith on a grand scale–cultural/political/social/emotional– because of the simple fact that I am a “woman of color” in the church. And I was coming from a very difference set of experiences that were foreign to the people that I came to love through the placement program.

    I know that there is very little diversity, in the church, in Utah anyway… Growing up in Utah was a very lonely experience for me. As soon as I graduated I moved as far away from Utah as I could–hence my allegiance to a catholic university! And oh how I rejoiced! haha I don’t miss Utah one bit! haha In fact, if I had to move back up there, I would go screaming and kicking once more! haha

    I have come to terms with who I am as a member of the church. I am an active and endowed member of the church. And let me tell you…getting to the place that I now am…that whole experience was not easy! In fact after experiencing the temple ceremony for the first time, I had an extremely hard time with that!! I had a real strong desire to leave the church after that experience. haha

    But, I went on to serve a full time mission after that and let me tell you…that was no pic nic either! I had a very difficult time with my companions! haha In fact, I made every single one of them cry. And if I don’t see them again in this lifetime then I hope that when I see them in the spirit world, I will receive their full forgiveness. haha But the rest of my experience, beyond the whole companionship thingy…haha was good.

    I have not always been faithful as I have had a tremendous struggle–a lifetime of struggle–with putting the Lord before the “faith of my fathers”…and let me tell you…that’s no easy thing to do as I come from a strong people who are spiritually strong and I come from a proud tradition and heritage with a language that is strong and intact.

    With that said…the Lord has managed to keep me his. He has strengthened my faith and he has loved me back into his fold. He has had be my mother hen gathering this clucking, wandering, and sometimes rebellious chick…haha and I love him for it.

    I appreciate your site!

    Sharon 🙂

    BTW, I’ll be a good patriot by campaiging for Barack Obama down here on my reservation! haha

  7. Aaron Says:

    I am a devout Mormon from Vermont – the exact opposite of Utah politically. We are arguably the most liberal / Democratic state in the nation, just as Utah is arguably the most conservative / Republican.

    And yes, I am something of a liberal Mormon (though in Vermont my left leaning ideas are considered “moderate”). I’ve always felt somewhat out of place amongst mainstream Mormons.

    Your comments about patriotism are very well written and reflective of my own feelings. Incidentally, I’m giving a talk on patriotism in church on Sunday, and I plan to mine your essay for some themes and ideas.

    I’ll be watching this website. Thanks.

  8. andrewsmiracledrug Says:

    Very nicely done, Derek. Thanks for the post and drawing my attention to it.

  9. State in Church (Updated) « Andrew’s Miracle Drug Says:

    […] Derek in the comments points us to a post he wrote two years ago. It’s well worth reading and discusses the problem of chavinism in what passes for patriotism […]

  10. Diana Jones Says:

    Thanks Derek! I really appreciated your thoughts. As I am a liberal Community of Christ (RLDS) member, I could really relate to the Book of Mormon references and you understanding that we are part of a world community.

  11. David Says:

    Hi, thanks for the post. I know it was a while ago! I was looking for some LDS views on patriotism for a YSA fireside that I have to present. As a ‘liberal’ member living in Australia, I can relate to what you wrote, and I agree with your comments. I lived in Utah for a short while, and spent a number of years living in New York State, so got to experience US patriotism at its best/worst. Here in Australia in the church there is more of a mix or Republican and Democrat types. Cheers

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