There’s a reason humans have always applied parental imagery to the Mother Country or the Fatherland. There’s a reason the very word “patriotism” is derived from patria , the Latin for “fatherhood”. Love of country is simply obedience to the commandment to love your neighbor and especially the commandment to love your father and mother.
It is worth noting a number of things about the commandment to love father and mother. The first thing to note is that it is a commandment . That should get our attention when we think about it. There are no commandments to obey the law of gravity, or to drink something when we are thirsty. Such things are automatic and generally do not involve our will.
In our sentimental culture we sometimes imagine that love for parents is also somehow supposed to be automatic. And to be sure, it is normal for there to be filial affection for parents as a general rule. But, of course, there are plenty of times when the mood to love one’s parents is rather tenuous. Parents can be fools, blabbermouths, drunks, addicts, abusive, bigoted, mousy, stinky, addled, pigheaded, passive, aggressive, embarrassing, absent, manipulative, cold, lustful, domineering, cowardly, dumb as rocks, nosey, and many other tiresome things besides. The world is full of stories of children, especially adult children, who must bear their parents as Christ bore his cross.
That’s why there’s a commandment to love our fathers and mothers—and, by extension, our country. For we are to love them unconditionally—as Christ loves us. We must love our country, not because it is rich or powerful or good or beautiful, but because it is ours : the mother God gave us and called us to honor.
This is very difficult, indeed impossible, to do without Christ’s help. We perpetually struggle with the temptation to speak of love, including love of country, as though it is earned. Kipling, one of the most famous poets of the greatness of England, once wrote:
If England was what England seems
An’ not the England of our dreams,
But only putty, brass, an’ paint,
‘Ow quick we’d drop ‘er! But she ain’t!
That is not patriotism, because it puts a condition on the love of country. It’s like saying, “I will love my mother if she remains the omniscient goddess I took her for when I was three. But if she turns out to be an old woman with foolish opinions and a taste for liver and onions, ‘ow quick I’ll drop ‘er.”
There is not a country in the world, including our own, that is not, to some degree, “only putty, brass, and paint.” Every nation has skeletons in its closet, failures to provide for the weakest, sins ranging from (in the case of Kipling’s England) Opium Wars and the persecution of Catholics to (in ours) the massacre of Native Americans or a significant percentage of the population dedicated to abortion. If we condition our love on the worthiness of the beloved, we will never love.
The fundamental thing to learn is gratitude to God, who put us where we are and called us to love where we are. The trick is to love your country and rejoice in her gifts while not making those gifts the condition of your love. Nations become great when people stop looking for reasons to love their country and start loving their country because they are imitating God, who is Love. As Chesterton put it:
Let us suppose we are confronted with a desperate thing — say Pimlico. If we think what is really best for Pimlico we shall find the thread of thought leads to the throne of the mystic and the arbitrary. It is not enough for a man to disapprove of Pimlico: in that case he will merely cut his throat or move to Chelsea. Nor, certainly, is it enough for a man to approve of Pimlico: for then it will remain Pimlico, which would be awful. The only way out of it seems to be for somebody to love Pimlico: to love it with a transcendental tie and without any earthly reason.
That is exactly the way God loves us: for no earthly reason. He created us out of nothing. He did not need us. He simply made us because he willed to do so in love. And when we spit in his eye, he went on loving us, taking even our hatred of him—a hatred willing to drive nails into his hands and feet—and turning it to our blessing.
It is from that Love that patriotism, like all other loves, must flow. We must love our country, as we love our neighbor, parent, spouse, and enemy: not because of what we stand to profit from them, but because God has made us able to love.