Growing up in a reasonably conservative household in Mormon-saturated Southern Idaho, I think that my first experiences with patriotism were very similar to those of most LDS people in the area: an affection for patriotic hymns, an opinion that the Stars and Stripes was the coolest flag ever, and a general opinion that America was…the best (It never really occurred to me to define further what specifically America was the best at; just that it was “the best.”) The 4th of July represented the same things to me that it does to many other people in our country–baseball, hot dogs, fireworks, and freak-nasty pancakes with cold syrup at the stake center.
Thoughts of the Declaration of Independence, the Revolutionary War, the Constitution, and other symbols of America’s patriotic history were not really a part of my world, partly because of my age and immaturity, but also because they just seemed very distant and unconnected to anything in my life. As I have gotten older, while my understanding and appreciation for those events and documents has grown considerably, I have nevertheless struggled increasingly with the concept of patriotism for several reasons.
When I was called to serve a mission in Finland, my views on “Independence Day” changed dramatically. Unlike the mid-summer holiday filled with BBQ and baseball in the USA, the Finnish Independence Day is in the middle of winter–December 6–when that part of the world is cold, dark, and somber. More importantly, it is a commemoration of a war and events that took place recently enough that some Finns who fought in Finland war of independence freedom were still alive when I served there. In each city, rather than hot dogs and parties, there is a very simple parade, wherein every Finn who has served in the military (which, due to conscription, is virtually every male) is invited to dress in uniform and march–organized by age–through the town, ending at the local Lutheran cathedral where a short sermon is given.
My first Independence Day in Finland was in the city of Tampere, and it was an absolute blizzard–huge, swirling gusts of wind and snow and freezing temperatures. In the middle of that, my companion and I watched as row after row of uniformed Finns marched past us in the street, seemingly oblivious to the miserable weather. I was struck by the solemnity of the procession, and while it was very clear from the outset that this was a moment of national reverence, I was not prepared for the sight of watching as the most senior servicemen–those who had fought in one of the two wars over independence from Russia, and who were over 90 years old–covered in white snow and marching with unmatched pride and sisu, their bayonets held firm in position and keeping pace with the 18 year-olds ahead of them. I was emotionally overcome at seeing not just veterans, but the veterans–those who had actually earned, and not just defended or expanded–the freedoms that the Finnish people enjoyed. As we took our seats in the cathedral and listened to the legions of uniformed soldiers, young and old, reciting the Lord’s Prayer in unison, I found my own country’s Independence Day festivities sorely wanting for depth and meaning.
When I returned my from mission and embarked on my journey into university education, I found myself in love with economics and markets and, in a word, a largely libertarian philosophy that began to dominate my political views. One consequence of my libertarian leanings is a disdain for nationalism, which, while not synonymous with patriotism, shares some of the same attitudes and behaviors. My earlier opinions that “America is the best” had transformed into statements about comparative advantages in production and trade and an appreciation for limited forms of government that allowed markets to function with less intervention. My Fathers were not George Washington and James Madison, but rather Adam Smith and David Ricardo. Where I had once thought of national borders as something great to preserve a cultural heritage, I now saw them as arbitrary lines drawn on maps that prevented free labor flows. Moreover, I saw them being protected, not out of a love for that culture, but out of political desire to maintain an advantage over those who were trying to compete with domestic sellers; in economic terms, I began to see the protection of national borders as little more than rent seeking.
Another difficulty I’ve had with patriotism stems from the fact that I am married to a foreign national. Because we have, to this point, anyway, made our home in the United States, where my wife’s culture and language are constantly under threat of being drowned out, we make every effort to preserve them: We speak her language at home, we celebrate all the holidays, we eat all the foods that are culturally hers, and not mine. More importantly, I have tried my very best over the 7+ years of marriage to never impose “American” attitudes or traditions on her. Independence Day, with the requisite song-singing in church meetings, flag waving, and neighbors playing Lee Greenwood songs, is by the far the most awkward day of the year for me. This has improved mildly as our marriage has matured and my wife has become more comfortable with American institutions like baseball and BBQ spareribs, but there is always a hesitance in our house on the 4th of July, and I am never surprised when one of our kids unexpectedly needs a diaper change during Sacrament meeting just before the congregation is supposed to sing the Star Spangled Banner.
Without question, however, the biggest barrier to me being comfortable with patriotism has been the change that has taken place in the United States since 9-11. Whether a person loves or hates, rejects or supports President Bush and President Obama, with their various policies, there is no question in my mind that the words “American,” “Freedom,” and “Patriot” have taken on significantly different meanings than they held when I was a younger. These phrases have become politically loaded and carry so much baggage that it is nearly impossible to hear or consider those words without my mind being instantly filled with imagery of war in Iraq, protests on college campuses, angry letters to the editor, and a bitter polarization of the American people down political lines.
I don’t think I’m alone in this. This morning, at our ward’s pancake breakfast, as I stood with my little girl and gazed around the scene while an older gentlemen stood at a microphone and spoke about patriotism, freedom, American history, and the Constitution, I couldn’t help but feel that the those sitting around in chairs and listening were of a different demographic and political persuasion than those who were hanging around the back edges, shuffling their feet or pretending to be interested in the utter grossness of the scrambled eggs that were still in the bottom of a serving dish.
Perhaps I have misjudged, or perhaps I am just a pessimist, but it breaks my heart to see such a division, and it wrenches my own that I feel uncomfortable standing with either crowd. I believe I am just one of many people–inside and outside the LDS Church–who has major difficulties and objections with many, many American policies, both new and old, but yet wants so badly to be included in the ranks of those who are proud to be an American.