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[Chalice] Patriotism and Spirituality [Chalice]

Presented May 22, 2004, by Rev. Dr. Rob Manning

I have two related questions I have wanted to ask you all for quite some time now: Do you consider yourself patriotic? And does your patriotism or lack thereof relate in any way to your religion/spirituality/theology?

As you ponder that question I would like to point out that I searched in our UU book Singing the Living Tradition for a reading on patriotism, on love for America, a reading that would be a tribute to America. There aren't any. Well, I thought, we could at least sing a patriotic hymn, like America the Beautiful or God Bless America. They aren't in there, either. Is that absence an indication that contemporary Unitarianism in this country is a form of spirituality that sees itself beyond or outside of American patriotism? Do you feel that your open and free Unitarian spirituality makes you more patriotic or does it lead you to a way of living and thinking that is somehow beyond and outside of patriotism?

In case you are sitting out there wondering if you are or are not patriotic, perhaps the USA Patriotism Website can help. When you log on to this website the first thing you encounter is this helpful set of questions: "Do you love the USA? Is it a fervent love? Do you have allegiance and loyalty to its government and its institutions regardless of your political beliefs? Are you angry/upset about what they did to us on September 11th? If you said yes, then you can proudly state you are patriotic."

Well, I guess that settles it. Or perhaps not. Perhaps many of us would respond that the answer to the question of whether or not we consider ourselves patriotic is much more complicated.

One event which forced me to think about patriotism is the forming of the group many of you belong to, the group which formed initially to oppose our war against Iraq. This group chose to call itself Patriots for Peace. We were trying to make a statement that we did not consider it at all unpatriotic to oppose our country's participation in a war. I get the sense that most people in the group are much more comfortable with the latter part of the title than the former part, that we are much more comfortable identifying ourselves as for peace than we are describing ourselves as patriots. Certainly in my own case I never think of myself as a patriot.

I have to admit that in my own case many years ago I did consider myself very patriotic and my patriotism had a lot to do with my theology at that time. I'll explain a bit more about that later. The fact of the matter is that any patriotic feelings I have within me have been steadily dying out for a long time. I feel like as far as patriotic feelings go I have been like a car running on gas fumes and that the warning light that informs me I am nearly out has been on since the Reagan administration. Perhaps I am now completely out. Just this past Sunday at QU's graduation we all began as we usually do by singing the National Anthem. But this time I just stood there. I couldn't muster up enough patriotic spirit even to sing the words.

And I was thinking about how much I have changed from my very patriotic youth. When I was, for example, in second grade, it was 1968 and I was firmly convinced our country was doing the right thing in Viet Nam, and I am sure if the army had taken seven-year-old boys at the time I would have been the first to sign up. At that point in my life I was fired up with love for my country, and yes it was a fervent love. And that fervent patriotism was certainly tied up with my religion at the time, because I had been taught in my Presbyterian Sunday School that God had chosen the Jews and promised them land, that God had set this precedence of having a special relationship with one people and one country, and I am sure I believed at the time that God had the same special relationship with America and had made America His own specially favorite country, which explained why were we so free and so good and so democratic and so wealthy. At that point in my life when I was most patriotic there was a lot of religion in my patriotism and a lot of patriotism in my religion. I really loved my country and believed it was loved by God in a special and unique way. Now if you are disappointed with me remember I didn't have the advantage of growing up as a Unitarian and I was only seven, and at that same time, 1968, my now liberal political scientist brother was supporting George Wallace for president, so believe me people change.

But not everyone changes, perhaps most don't. I think plenty of religious people in this country are patriotic-religious and religious-patriotic and believe what I believed when I was a kid. I think there are plenty of Americans who are patriotic in a religious way and really believe that our success and our wealth and our superiority as the world's only superpower, is an indication that God loves and favors America. President Reagan was religious-patriotic in this way, and in order to show you how this religious patriotism is still alive in the current administration, all you have to do is actually read your Christmas card from Vice President Cheney. In case you don't remember, there's this quotation from Benjamin Franklin in the Cheney's Christmas Card: "And if a sparrow cannot fall to the ground without God's notice, is it probable that an empire can rise without His aid?" Since the American empire has certainly risen and we are the world's only Superpower, that must be a sign of God's help and favor.

I am sure most of us, perhaps even all of us would not share that religious patriotism and patriotic religiousness and would want to oppose it, but as we do so what do we say about patriotism and how does patriotism relate to our spirituality? Would you describe yourself as patriotic? Would you talk about how patriotism inside of you has dwindled down to little or nothing, and would this have anything to do with your theology/spirituality?

For myself, I could talk about many reasons why my patriotism has dwindled down to little, almost nothing. The Viet Nam War, Watergate, the entire Reagan administration, the first Gulf War; I could go on and on and on. However, the main reason my patriotism has dwindled down to nothing has more to do with religion than politics, has everything to do with religion. My patriotism largely left me, as I gradually became a different type of religious person. I came to understand and believe firmly that spirituality does not go hand in hand with patriotism and support it. Spirituality challenges patriotism, speaks to it critically, and overthrows it. Spirituality provides you with a different source of values and meaning than love of one's country.

I like how this is expressed in the most basic expression of spirituality in Buddhism: I take refuge in the Buddha. I take refuge in the Dharma. I take refuge in the Sangha. It's not: I take refuge in my identity as an American, in my love for my country. The refuge the Buddhist takes in the Buddha, in the teaching, and in the community of monks replaces the refuge you might take in your country.

My spiritual steps away from patriotism were not due to Buddhism but to a deeper understanding and awareness of Biblical wisdom. The Hebrew prophets are constantly telling nations that when they think God is on their side they are ready for ruin. There is so much more to Biblical and rabbinic Judaism than what we were taught in Sunday School about God's promise of land to Abraham and his descendants. This event is far eclipsed in importance by the Exodus and by the giving of the 10 Commandments, the principles by which a just and ethical society could be established. And it's not that the Jews are simply given land by God to be at home on the earth and that's it. They have to undergo the experience of being homeless, of being strangers on the earth, of being ill treated foreigners in Egypt and even being enslaved. The constant refrain in the Hebrew Bible and in the Talmud is to remember as you settle in your land and become comfortable and proud that you yourself were once strangers in the land. And it's not that the Jews just go to the land and take it over. They have to wander around in the desert for 40 years. According to the rabbis in the Talmud, they needed that time to understand that the God who rescued them from slavery and taught them the principles of ethics and justice for everyone and not just for our people and especially for the stranger, the foreigner, cannot simply violate His own principles and take land from others and give it to them. The Holy Land cannot be conquered land. The Jews who were rescued from slavery must live in the land in a different way, reminding themselves always even as they settle in and become proud of their land, their country, that they are still strangers on the earth. The Jews are commanded to live this out ritualistically every fall when they are to move out of their comfortable homes and live for a week in a Sukkah, a much smaller hut that must be constructed to be both fragile and temporary . The time in the Sukkah is to remind us that though we do settle in and become attached to and proud of who we are, of what we have, of our identities on the earth because none of us are really at home on the earth. We are all strangers on the earth. The time in the Sukkah reminds us that we are attached to God's teaching of ethics and justice and not to the land, not to our part of the earth, our place, our country.

If Unitarian spirituality as we live it out today in our American society leads beyond or outside of American patriotism, it could be because we are just so left in our political leanings and so all we do is take a critical view of America because of Viet Nam and Watergate and Reagan and on and on. Or it could be that Unitarian spirituality as we live it out today in contemporary America tends to be outside or beyond American patriotism because it tries to live out of and from the spritual depths of the world's great religious and spiritual traditions and that these spiritual depths themselves lead us beyond and outside of American and every other kind of patriotism.

©2004 Rev. Dr. Rob Manning

The following, adapted from the Chicago Manual of Style, 15th edition, is the preferred citation for this article:
Manning, Robert J. S. 2004. Patriotism and Spirituality, (accessed May 30, 2020).

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