What Is Patriotism? by Carol P. Christ

carol p. christ 2002 colorJuly 4, American Independence Day, has come and gone. Perhaps now is as good a time as any to reflect on patriotism. What is it? What does it mean from a feminist perspective?  What is the relationship between patriotism and militarism?  Can one be a patriot and oppose war?  Can one be a patriot and deny that “America is the greatest country in the world,” the foundation of  the doctrine of American exceptionalism?

In a recent blog, Caroline Kline called attention to the use of patriarchal God language in the patriotic hymns her child was asked to sing in the 1st grade.  She wondered if this God language could be changed to female positive or gender neutral.  Her post prompted me to ask if changing pronouns would be enough and to revisit the question of patriotism and nationalism.

While I had opposed the Vietnam War in the 1960s and 70s, I was surprised to read Jonathan Schell’s questioning of national sovereignty and the nation-state itself in his 1982 book on the nuclear question, The Fate of the EarthSchell wrote, “the nuclear powers put a higher value on national sovereignty than they do on human survival, and … while they would naturally prefer to have both, they are ultimately prepared to bring an end to [hu]mankind in their attempt to protect their own countries.” (210)  Schell concluded that the adherence to the idea of a nation state may in fact be antithetical to human survival. He stated, “Just as we have chosen to live in the system of sovereign states, we can choose to live in some other system.” (219)

In his 2009 lecture titled “Three Holy Wars” Howard Zinn” questioned the necessity of 3 American wars that almost all historians have justified as necessary and good: the Revolutionary War, the Civil War, and the Second World War.  I hope readers of this blog will watch this lecture or a longer version  “The Myth of the Good Wars” on Youtube and think about the reasons leftist pacifist Zinn thought justice could have been achieved in each of these cases without resort to the violence and destruction of war. 

According to Martha Bockee Flint in her 1896 book Early Long Island, at the time of the Revolutionary War, “a not inconsiderable Quaker element was on principle opposed to war, as itself a greater evil than any it might seek to right.” (340)  The Hempstead Colony petitioned for a peaceful resolution of the conflict.  Bockee Flint commented, “Could ‘honest men’ and good citizens do any less than here resolved?  Yet these Resolutions branded all concerned therewith as ‘Tories,’ the synonym of traitor.” (501)  Still today, anyone who even dares to ask such questions is likely to be called unpatriotic.

In his 1967 essay “Civil Religion in America,” Robert N. Bellah called attention to the ways in which the American narrative has been shaped by the notion of divine providence in the founding of the American nation and in its testing during the Civil War.  When his essay was reprinted in 1991, Bellah stated, “I conceive of the central tradition of the American civil religion not as a form of national self-worship but as the subordination of the nation to ethical principles that transcend it in terms of which it should be judged. I am convinced that every nation and every people come to some form or religious self-understanding whether the critics like it or not.”

In the intervening years critics have questioned “American exceptionalism,” which I would argue is rooted in the idea of divine providence in American history.  American exceptionalism is based on the notion that “America is the greatest country in the world.” The root of America’s greatness is “our democratic system.” The corollary to this is that “America has been chosen to spread democratic principles to the world.”  The doctrine of American exceptionalism has been used to justify American wars and interventions in the political systems of other countries.

Critics of American exceptionalism have pointed out that America is not the only democratic system in the world, and possibly not the best exemplar of democratic principles.  How democratic is a country in which states and municipalities systematically and persistently attempt to bar black citizens from exercising the right to vote? If our democracy is so “exceptional” why does America come in 77th in the world in a comparison of the percentage of women holding national political office How democratic is a government that spies on the internet conversations of law-abiding citizens? These are only a few of the many ways American democracy is less than exceptional.

In my series of blogs on patriarchy I argued that patriarchy is a system of male domination founded on the control of female sexuality, private property, and war.  In a recent blog I argued that military culture has been a rape culture since its inception.  Yet the military and war are the bulwarks of the nation state.  Should feminists be supporting any nation state?

Is it possible to be a patriot and to question America’s wars? Is it possible to be a patriot and to ask if war is a greater evil than any it sets to right? Is it possible to be a patriot and to insist that America is neither chosen by God, nor in any other way chosen to be a light to the world?  Is it possible to be a patriot and to recognize that violence is rarely the best way to solve national and international disputes? Is it possible to be a patriot and to recognize the military as a rape cuture? Is there another way to be proud to be an American?  Or, should we be trying to build another kind of system altogether?

These are the questions I was asking myself on the 4th of July.

Carol P. Christ has just returned from a life-transforming Goddess Pilgrimage to Crete which she led through Ariadne Institute.  The culture of ancient Crete, the last flowering of Old Europe, is one of the wellsprings of her spiritual vision, and there she participates in rituals that invoke Goddess and celebrate the connection of all beings in the web of  life.  Carol spoke on a WATER Teleconference recently.  Her books include She Who Changes and Rebirth of the Goddess and the widely-used anthologies Womanspirit Rising and Weaving the Visions

Author: Carol P. Christ

Carol P. Christ is a leading feminist historian of religion and theologian who leads the Goddess Pilgrimage to Crete, a life transforming tour for women. www.goddessariadne.org

10 thoughts on “What Is Patriotism? by Carol P. Christ”

  1. Thanks Carol. Your comment on Schell’s “Fate of the Earth” is incredibly important where you say: “Schell concluded that the adherence to the idea of a nation state may in fact be antithetical to human survival.”

    For political reasons, feminist, ecological and otherwise, I used to call myself an Earthling. Reading your post this morning, I realized I am naturally an Earthling of course, that’s a fact, it’s not a political position or some great ecological leap in naming or identity. Our children should be reminded, very simply, that we are all Earthlings, just like the birds, squirrels, butterflies and the dog, and in school, taught to honor and sing songs daily in praise of the Earth.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. As usual, brava! An excellent essay asking important questions about so-called American exceptionalism. The U.S. is way down the list on many issues, not just women in government, but child care, education, and other things the old, rich, mostly white men who run our government seem not to care about. I no longer go to political events.


    1. I don’t know if I’m just getting old and jaded or what, but I am having a seriously hard time figuring out where to put my energies. There are so many things wrong and it’s so hard to figure out what will make things better, since so often we can’t predict the results of our actions. Life has gotten so complicated that I can’t even figure out what to EAT any more. Everything has something wrong with it (GMO’s, pesticides, cholesterol, gluten, etc.). It seems like the more I know, the harder it gets to make decisions. One thing I’m sure of is that patriarchy is BAD for people and the planet. I’m just not sure how to proceed to dismantle it, and what to substitute instead (although I’m pretty sure women could clean up the mess if we could figure out where to start!).


  3. Patriotism is patriarchy’s ploy to silence dissidence and to sugar -coat it’s heavy investment in the war machine, arms manufacture and trade. I also vote for the last option.


  4. Great questions, Carol, and the last one opens to the door to many more. I wonder is there a baby to keep? The bathwater needs to go. I also find it interesting that matriotic is not a recognized word, nor is there a counterpart to brethren.


  5. Very big questions, Carol, but I think we need to take small steps in the direction of correcting the problems.

    I had a lot of trouble seeing my neighbors, most of whom are as politically liberal as I am, unthinkingly putting out American flags on the 4th. Ever since the Viet Nam War, these pieces of cloth are tainted for me. And this year is no different, what with Snowden’s revelations of how wire-tapped and snooped-on all of the U.S. has become. But I love this country, I love the people who live here, I love the landscapes, I love our can-do attitude, I love how we talk, I love our crazy American art tradition of vanity license plates. I think I’m a patriot, at least in that sense. Having lived in Germany for over 3 years I realized that I wanted to live in my native land.

    I see myself as a world citizen and beyond that, as Francesca says, as an Earthling. But most Americans are nowhere near that understanding. So as a transition to something other than the American nation-state, I think we need to take back the word patriotism to include all the things that you have listed that might make some people wonder if we’re patriots: dissent, anti-war sentiments, not believing America is the best country in the world, that God’s on our side, that we should be exporting “democracy” (short-hand for American multinationals). We’re patriots, because we love our country and want to see it do the right thing. Right now especially, with so much gone awry in this country, we need stand up for the values that we — as Americans — believe in and correct the political, economic, and social course of our country.


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