How civic friendship is better than political patriotism

The annual commemoration of the Declaration of Independence is our national affirmation of the American civil religion. On July 4, most Americans are united in common fidelity, momentarily setting aside our religious, political and cultural differences to acclaim our shared political faith. Complete with processions, hymns, creeds and sacramental symbols, we observe the anniversary of an event and reaffirm the principles that animate it.

Whatever divergences of opinions might otherwise divide us, so the narrative goes, we all converge around fundamental agreements about certain moral truths. We might disagree about their implications, but we are united by our devotion to the nation and commitment to its foundational dogmas. Disagreements, we generally think, are based on the other side’s misunderstanding of the application of the principles that unite us as Americans. But we nearly unanimously “hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men … are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights,” as our Philadelphian creed puts it. July 4 festivities renew our commitment to a novus ordo seclorum — a “new order for the ages.” We demonstrate this devotion by a public confession (Latin: liturgia) that we are bound in agreement (Latin: religio) to something we hold to be sacred (Latin: sacramentum).


Indeed, we pledge allegiance not just to the United States, but also to the symbol that points to and stands for American moral and political principles. The name we generally give to this common celebration of a shared faith is “patriotism,” which many of us consider the highest national virtue. But what if the tenets of this public faith are not “self-evident,” nor even true?

What if a commitment to these principles requires us to affirm moral or political doctrines that are not compatible with the Christian faith? Can we still pledge allegiance to the nation built upon these doctrines? And even if we can, at what point in our devotion does patriotism become another name for idolatry?

I ask these questions not to condemn celebrations of national identity. If properly qualified such that it does not devolve into chauvinistic nationalism, affirmation of national identity is perfectly fine. Nor do I contend that there are simple, hard-and-fast answers to questions of competing political loyalties. Rather, in this annual occurrence of American politico-religiosity, my purpose is to challenge us to think seriously about what our allegiance to the flag and country might imply.

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In any political regime, critical self-reflection is a necessary aspect of faithful Christian discipleship. Our faith is not conditioned by any political identity. Nor does it require adherence to this or that political theory. Indeed, the Christian faith resists any such identification. Christians may live in full integrity to the Gospel in any number of political arrangements, informed by a variety of political theories. Christian faith can be compromised, however, by confusing political theories with Christian doctrine, or by subordinating the latter to the former. Few Catholic Christians do this intentionally, of course. But I fear that many of us do so by default, solely because we “hold these truths,” without critically examining what these truths are, or how they challenge our Christian faith.

A ‘state’ without a nation

This danger exists in any political regime, but it is especially acute in the United States. The United States is not a “nation” in the traditional way that term is understood, as naming a common ethno-linguistic identity. Rather, the United States is a “state” without a nation. It is a political invention, founded not upon natural organic ties, but rather upon conventional political theories. There’s nothing wrong with that, assuming those theories are consistent with the truth about the human person and society. But here’s the rub. It is not at all self-evident that the central dogmas upon which the American state is founded are compatible with Christian faith and practice. Indeed, at least one of those dogmas is an implicit repudiation of Christian moral anthropology.

The “unalienable rights” with which we are allegedly endowed are rooted in a political philosophy that denies the natural social nature of the human person. Rather, “rights” is the name given to mutually hostile claims that atomistic individuals have against one another. While nuances might be suggested, a theory of individual rights cannot be reconciled with the Catholic doctrines of solidarity and human dignity. Rather, individual possessive rights are expressions of a natural state of division and enmity, in which isolated individuals are engaged in a war of every person against every person. Ironically, then, even though we Americans are united in affirming these “self-evident” truths, the truths themselves tell us that we are enemies of one another. To celebrate unqualified American patriotism, therefore, is to express agreement with a dogma that denies an unalienable doctrine of Christian faith.

This commitment to alleged unalienable rights is also an expression of so-called American “exceptionalism,” as though the United States has created a uniquely proper form of political arrangements, to the exclusion of any others. The transcendent portability of the Christian faith tells us that there is no such thing in this earthly life as a “new order for the ages.” The only order for all ages is found in the Christian doctrines of creation and redemption, by which we are ordered toward love of God. A politics that denies that cannot be properly ordered in any other way. To the contrary, the notion that this or any other nation is exceptional, or that it is somehow a perfect form of government tends toward idolatry.

With this in mind, I suggest that if we do not see a tension between our Catholic faith and American patriotism, we have not understood either as well as we should. More ominously, our failure to think seriously about competing claims of faith and patriotism often devolves into subordinating Catholic doctrine to American dogma. This subordination is a short step from collapsing faith into nationalist ideology. This, of course, is the temptation toward idolatry suggested above.

Civic friendship rather than patriotic devotion

Rather than patriotic devotion to the United States, therefore, I suggest that we think more in terms of civic friendship with the persons who live in them. This is simultaneously a more difficult and more accessible approach to public life. It is more difficult because it requires us to develop the personal virtues of which friendship is the fruit. It is more accessible, however, because civic friendship is more native to Christian faith and practice than adherence to American political dogma.

Aristotle, whose philosophy has greatly contributed to the development of Christian theology, suggests that friendship, not political loyalty, is the highest public virtue. It is no surprise then, that his theory of the virtue of friendship is consistent with the Christian definitions of both love and justice. We define love as willing the best for another. Justice is defined as rendering to another his due. While he taught some 300 years before the coming of Christ, Aristotle’s theory of the highest form of friendship helps us to understand charity and justice as political virtues. For Aristotle, the best politics is one that encourages and facilitates friendship between members of the city, not loyalty to the regime itself.

“Friendship appears to be the bond of the state,” suggests Aristotle. Thus, the goal of the legislator should be “to promote concord, which seems akin to friendship.” This contrasts with “faction, [which] they are most anxious to banish,” he continues. “If people are friends, there is no need of justice between them. Indeed, the highest form of justice seems to have an element of friendly feeling in it.” Promotion of friendship is a much more hopeful political good than fomenting the division of individual possessive rights claims.

Good of others

If we understand our public and social lives this way, our political impulses are not ordered toward love of a country or the theory that undergirds it. Rather, they are ordered toward love of other persons, created in the image and likeness of God. Unlike patriotism, the object of civic friendship is the good of others, not pride in a political regime. Civic friendship does not require shared dogmatic adherence to a set of political principles. Nor, of course, does it tend toward the idolatry of nationalist pride. A commitment to civic friendship is the fruit of other Christian virtues, such as humility, hospitality, patience and long suffering.

If not at least chastened by the virtue of civic friendship, patriotism may easily devolve into nationalist chauvinism. Even if patriotism is possible, we Catholics should be on the side of reconciliation not triumphalism. Nationalist pride is no less problematic than personal pride. Rather than to encourage willing the good of the other, undiluted patriotism tends to foment alienation from the other. It incites the kind of attitude by which others are seen as inferior to those of us who subscribe to American “self-evident” truths.

This is not to suggest that one should not love one’s country. But our love should be directed toward persons, not theories; toward people, not nations. Loving the theory tends toward division about its meaning, even when we agree on the theory itself. Loving persons necessarily causes comradery, even when people don’t seem very lovable. Patriotism highlights division; friendship commonality. We Catholics might see July 4 as the opportunity to discern how the love of country is always subordinated to the love of God and our neighbor. We can be good Americans by being good civic friends, informed by the Gospel rather than 16th-century political theories.

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