The orgies of lugubrious praise of Ronald Reagan in the press and even at other Mormon-themed blogs this week has me asking some questions (besides the obvious, snarky one of when obsequious adulation crosses the line into something nearly blasphemous).
What is patriotism for? The most common refrain to the eulogies of President Reagan is that “he made us feel good about America.”. Why is that so important? I’m not saying that it isn’t important; I think there may well be profound lessons to be learned from a deep love of one’s country. Patriotism has inspired loyalty, devotion, self-sacrifice, even real heroism. Still, it seems to me that patriotism is an inconstant schoolmaster: patriotism that becomes blind to the foibles of the beloved nation or indifferent to the hopes and dreams of denizens of other nations can quickly become hideous. Patriotism seems risky to me because it is so easily distorted.
When I was younger and knew everything, my smug and self-satisfied explanation of why patriotism might be commendable went like this: like the love of family, love of country can expand our circle of caring out from ourselves. God bids us draw ever wider circles around the people and things that we love, until eventually our love, like His, can encompass all of creation. Getting stuck at caring for our families or our tribe or our country is better than remaining in a state of infantile self-love, but it is still far from the “telos” God has in mind for us. But this is far too easy an explanation, and fails to account for the many people who are much wiser than I who are deeply moved by patriotic feelings.
I think part of what has given me the willies about all the Reagan-worship in the last few days is that it is centered on one man, rather than on the principles underlying the nation’s founding or some other more palatable abstraction. It’s easy for me to think that loving humane ideals like freedom, justice, equality can move us to the kind of devotion to a community of “one mind” that will bring us to Zion, but I get lost when one (moderately to severely, depending on your persuasion) flawed man is enshrined as the embodiment of all those virtues. Still, to draw the Mormon parallel, it seems clear that the Saints who have come closest to making something like Zion were motivated both by love of the gospel in the abstract, and by love and loyalty to living, breathing, (and therefore flawed) leaders. I confess that I understand this kind of loyalty as little as I understand the emotion behind tributes to President Reagan.
So, help me out. Can patriotism be a tool for teaching us how to approach Zion? If so, what would such patriotism look like? Does it require us to turn a blind eye to the faults and sins of our leaders? Or, is patriotism a trap that closes our hearts to our brothers and sisters in other countries? Do the Jehovah’s Witnesses have it right when they claim to reserve their allegiance for God? Should we be waiting for “a better country, that is, an heavenly”?