Patriotism and Religion: Speaking Complexly about Complex Issues by Carol P. Christ

carol p. christ photo michael bakasFormer Mayor of New York Rudy Giulaini recently questioned the American President’s patriotism when he asked if Obama had been “brought up the way you were brought up and I was brought up, through love of this country.” When Chris Hayes discussed the furor surrounding Guiliani’s statement on MSNBC with James Peterson of Lehigh University, I would say that they both missed the point. Their defense of the President was to insist that he is a dyed in the wool patriot. Should anyone be a dyed in the wool patriot these days? What does and should patriotism mean? These were questions not asked.

Asked to clarify his comments, Giulani opined that Obama speaks from the perspective of “socialism” and “perhaps anti-colonialism” rather than good old American patriotism. Again Hayes and Peterson dropped the ball. They were quick to agree that the American Colonialists should be considered anti-colonialist given that they rebelled against the colonial power of England. What they failed to say was that the American Colonialists were colonialists too. Though they threw England out, they had no compunction in asserting their right to take the land, the resources, and the very lives of earlier inhabitants of what became the American land.

I heard Giuliani’s statement in a different way. When Giuliani spoke of being brought up to love his country, I heard echoes of my own childhood. Like many Americans, Giuliani included, I was taught to love my country right or wrong. Indeed I was taught that my country was never wrong. From the perspective of my current understanding of the world, I now feel that the way I was brought up to love my country was itself wrong.

The American nation has been wrong on many things. First we must consider the idea our forebears held that the American land was theirs for the taking. No matter what degree of relation immigrant Americans had to the Native Americans, they all were taught that the Indians were barbarians who had no right to the land being claimed by civilized Europeans. Next we can ask why slavery was not outlawed and women were denied the vote at the time of the founding of the American nation. If we look at the truth of the matter, there are many reasons not to feel as proud of our country as “we” were taught to do.

And then of course there are the many wars—from the Pequot War to the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. How many, if any of them were just wars? And how many of them should rightly give us reason to temper any patriotism we have with the double eye that sees both the good and the bad that our nation has done?

If Chris Hayes had been interviewing me, I would not have been so quick to defend patriotism and the American nation. Rather I would have asked what patriotism means and whether anyone should defend any nation right or wrong. This would not have extricated Obama from Giuliani’s criticism, but it might have instigated deeper and more complex questioning of Giuliani’s premise.

In recent programs on MSNBC Lawrence O’Donnell opened a complex discussion of religion in general and Islam in particular, following Obama’s (now controversial) assertion that the terrorism of the Islamic State is not “the real” Islam and his statement that Christians were also guilty of atrocities during the crusades.

It was clear to me that the context of Obama’s statements is the feeling of many Americans that “Islam” is to blame for the terrorist activities of jihadists acting in its name, along with the conclusion they draw from this that “Islam” is a violent religion while “Christianity” is not. Obama was trying to make two related points: not all Muslims are violent jihadists; and Christianity is not all good and Islam is not all bad. Obama was immediately attacked for comparing Christianity and Islam for both having violent histories.

O’Donnell (unlike Hayes) resisted any knee-jerk temptation he might have had to defend Obama in any simple way from his critics. Rather O’Donnell (revealing the power of Roman Catholic theological education), began a more complex conversation about what constitutes “the real” Islam and “the real” Christianity.

Not one to mince words, O’Donnell asserted that Catholicism “was once the most murderous force on the face of the earth.” I was more interested in the statement of Asra Q. Nomani, the author of Standing Alone: An American Woman’s Struggle for the Soul of Islam, that the President was wrong to say that Islamic State is beyond the pale of Islam. Rather, she asserted, Islamic State represents, “a very serious interpretation of Islam in the world that is wreaking havoc on all of us.” Though Normani does not agree with Islamic State’s interpretation of Islam, she argues that well-meaning scholars, journalists, and politicans, along with progressive Muslims, are simply burying their heads in the sand if they refuse to recognize that the Islamic State’s understanding of Islam is rooted in Islamic texts and in Islamic history.

This discussion of what is or is not “the real “Islam” and “the real” Christianity reminds me of debates feminists were having a few decades ago about whether or not “the real” Christianity or Judaism are sexist or not. Along with Mary Daly, Rosemary Radford Ruether, Judith Plaskow, and others, I engaged in this debate for a period of time.

In the end, I came to see that the question of what constitutes “the real” Judaism or Christianity is a moot point. Whatever good or bad exists in the past of any group is subject to interpretation by actors and groups of actors in the present: they are the ones who will determine which texts and which history they will consider normative and which parts they will transform or discard. From this perspective we can see that both jihadists and progressive Muslims are engaged in interpretation of Islam in the present, and that they are struggling with each other about which interpretation of Islam will be brought into the future.

It is not easy to initiate complex discussions of complex issues, but these are the very discussions we most need to have—about patriotism and about religion. It is clear that these discussions are related. Guiliani criticized Obama’s patriotism in part because Obama dared to criticize Christianity. Many people on both sides of the discussions about religion and politics are are convinced that their country is right because their God is on their country’s side.

I commend Lawrence O’Donnell and Asra Normani for showing us that complex discussions of religion are possible in public spaces, even when the political stakes are high. I hope this discussion will continue, and that a more complex discussion of patriotism and love of country can be initiated as well. No religion and no country is all good nor is any religion or country all bad. Blind faith in religion or country, on the other hand, is never a good thing.

Carol leads the life-transforming Goddess Pilgrimage to Crete (facebook and twitter)–space available on the spring and fall 2015 tours.  Carol’s books include She Who Changes and and Rebirth of the Goddess; with Judith Plaskow, the widely-used anthologies Womanspirit Rising and Weaving the Visions; and forthcoming next year, Goddess and God in the World: Conversations in Embodied Theology. Photo of Carol by Michael Bakas.



Categories: Activism, Christianity, General, Islam, Politics, Resistance

Tags: , , , , , , , ,

10 replies

  1. Right on target, Carol!

    “In the end, I came to see that the question of what constitutes “the real” Judaism or Christianity is a moot point. Whatever good or bad exists in the past of any group is subject to interpretation by actors and groups of actors in the present: they are the ones who will determine which texts and which history they will consider normative and which parts they will transform or discard.”

    My students will often (at least in the beginning of a semester) talk about “true Islam” or “true Christianity” as if such a thing existed outside the “rough and tumble” of people living out how they understand their faith traditions.

    Great post. Thanks.


  2. This is very interesting. Thank you.

    I really admire Osra Nomani for bravely stating that ISIS actually use extremist interpretations that are legitimate in some traditional Islamic circles. And I absolutely agree that “both jihadists and progressive Muslims are engaged in interpretation of Islam in the present, and that they are struggling with each other about which interpretation of Islam will be brought into the future.” I also think that it’s not only about interpretation but also exegesis and hermeneutics, they’re all part of the “battle” I believe.

    I wanted to comment also on the importance of viewing the interpretations employed/developed by ISIS in the larger political context of the region and the crisis, just like we cannot separate traditional shari’a laws made 1400 years ago from the sociopolitical contexts they were influenced by. Accepting the brand “Islamic” in “ISIS” is not only dangerous to Muslims living in countries where islamophobia is on the rise, but it also risks reducing this conflict to a theological “war.” ISIS, just like al-Nussra, is a political and rational actor that is funded by powers that do not share the same ideology with it but share the same interests — political and economic. ISIS’ ideology is inevitably influenced by these alliances. Yes, it is an essentially “Islamic” ideology, but it’s not only that and we need to definitely problematize it and yes discredit it as much as we possibly could instead of giving it credence, intentionally or not.


    • I agree, hanadi. The American public is extremely ignorant, sometimes I think even politically illiterate. Within this public sphere, I think it is better to deny ISIL any credibility, religious or political. In the best of all possible worlds, a more complex discussion would be best. But our public sphere is far from that.


      • True. I am very much saddened that well-meaning and sometimes well-founded articles and opinions claiming that ISIL is indeed “Islamic” have been widely shared and used by hate-peddling outlets as ammo against muslims. I think this is a very important moral question that should be addressed.


  3. Thank you for pointing out that there are still some journalists and their interviewees who are not afraid to present complex issues to the citizens and eschew “dumbing down” for the masses.


  4. Thank you Carol. It’s a situation with many and various angles and the world seems to be in a period of extremisms – of all kinds. I found your post helpful amid the shouting and craziness.


  5. As usual, brava! Very thoughtful post that brings some clarity to the extremely foggy subject of what patriotism is and is not. It’s not always admirable and good.

    (I quit watching MSNBC a year ago (Chris Matthews and Al Sharpton drove me nuts every time they opened their mouths), but I admired Lawrence O’Donnell and felt he was more thoughtful than many of the other hosts and commentators.)

    I grew up in Middle America (in that Ferguson) post-World War II. I remember when “under God” was added to the Pledge of Allegiance and when we were instructed to put our hands over our hearts instead of extending our arms in a quasi-Nazi salute. But for some reason I seem not to have gotten the “our nation right or wrong” thrown at me. I paid attention in American History class in high school (the textbook actually began with the dinosaurs in what became North America!) and kept wondering what was considered good about Manifest Destiny. I guess I wasn’t raised like Giuliani, either. Hooray!


  6. Carol, I agree with your entire analysis of both patriotism and Islam. But I believe the American people — because of years of negligent journalism, lack of civics classes in our schools, an ideology of patriotism that squelches all discussion — are extremely ignorant, as I said above, possibly politically illiterate. Within this framework, nuance gets drowned out. As a result, I don’t think we should give ISIL any credibility as a religiously founded organization. That will only lead to greater fear on the part of the American public that Islam is a violent religion that’s “out to get us.” It’s like improving helicopters during the Vietnam War. Improved helicopters are ultimately a good thing — greater nuance in our understanding of each other is ultimately a good thing. But better helicopters were just used to kill more of the Vietcong, and nuance will be used by the opposition to “prove” that Islam is the enemy. (Maybe not the best analogy, but you get what I mean).


  7. You reminded me of an old song called “My Country” from an aptly named band “Midnight Oil” (considering the number of wars that have been fought over oil):


  8. I do think Americans are ignorant when it comes to the question of religion, Nancy, and this is a national disgrace. However, rather than saying things we know are not true such as that IS is not Islam–think we should be saying IS is an extremist form of Islam that is rejected by the majority of Muslims today. There is no way to assure that any nuanced views will be heard, of course. On the other hand, denying that IS is Islam will not necessarily “take” either, as most people believe it is Islam and will discount the statement.


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