The Practice of Patriotism

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.

Mark Shea


Mark P. Shea is a popular Catholic writer and speaker. The author of numerous books, his most recent work is The Work of Mercy (Servant) and The Heart of Catholic Prayer (Our Sunday Visitor). Mark contributes numerous articles to many magazines, including his popular column “Connecting the Dots” for the National Catholic Register. Mark is known nationally for his one minute “Words of Encouragement” on Catholic radio. He also maintains the Catholic and Enjoying It blog and regularly blogs for National Catholic Register. He lives in Washington state with his wife, Janet, and their four sons.

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  • Mark,
    A very thought provoking theme. I wonder, however, how you would answer Frederick Douglass, the abolitionist:

    “In thinking of America I sometimes find myself admiring her bright blue sky, her grand old woods, her fertile fields, her beautiful rivers, her mighty lakes and star crowned mountains. But my rapture is soon checked when I remember that all is cursed with the infernal spirit of slaveholding and wrong, when I remember that with the waters of her noblest rivers the tears of my brethren are born to the ocean disregarded and forgotten, that her most fertile fields drink daily of the warm blood of my outraged sisters….”

  • mamamull

    OK so slavery wasn’t posted. It wan an abomination – so is the wholesale slaughter of unborn babies. Welfare is also the scourge that damaged the African-American families more than slavery ever did. Frederick Douglass would have something to say about the refusal of the black man to be a responsible father and husband. He no doubt would have something to say about the huge number of black children being conceieved out of wedlock – 80% or more.

    I am not a racist – I have adopted love two boys that are not the same skin tone as me. I sign most forms for race By checking “other” and then writing in human.

    Many educational forms won’t let me list the mulitple ethnicities of my sons on their forms and that is what started by HUMAN campaign.

    Nit picking has it’s purpose – just go with the examples sometimes. We don’t all have to write like the late, great, JPII.

  • mamamull

    Get over it – he didn’t list slavery – it is one our country’s sins. We don’t always have to write to include every sin of our nation – it would take too long.

    Do you think that the late and eloquent Mr. Douglass would not have something to say of his fellow men if he were to see how welfare has been allowed to ruin the connections of the black families more than slavery even hoped to have done. Do you think he would’t be outraged at the number of chldren concieved out of wedlock – 80% or something like that. How abortion has killed more black children than there were slaves?

    I have adopted sons that multi-ethnic – I check the other box on race questions and write in Human. For that is how I see things – we are humans and we don’t look the same. I don’t worry about it – I want to speak more languages.

    But hey, our nation has a lot of sins – so do each of us. I don’t want to list my online, though.


  • My idea in quoting Douglass was not for slavery per se, but to consider his …”but my rapture is soon checked when I remember….” I think we could get into quite a discussion with Mark Shea on his definition of love for country. Jesus said, “greater love hath no man to give his life for his friends.” Notice he does not say anything about rapture, or warm and fuzzy feelings, or hugs, or in fact anything emotional.

    I think a citizen who works to change his/her country for the better exhibits more worthwhile patriotism than the flag waving, bumper sticker, “God bless America” superpatriot.

    In reality a Christian today has good reason to feel repugnance when he looks at the country’s apostate condition, especially when he or she has lived here long enough to contrast the USA today with America Beautiful as she existed prior to the postmodernist era. I would date transmutation of the United States from God’s friend to His foe from about the time of the assassination of JFK.

    To effect a turnabout, i.e. to put the country back into allegiance with God, is the high calling of genuine patriotism.

  • Mark Shea


    Since nothing I said had anything to do with “super-patriotism” or unquestioning jingoism or turning a blind eye to evil, I’m not sure what you are driving at.

    I would suggest you wait for me to finish the series before you immediately assume my point is “My country, right or wrong!” In fact, I agree with Chesterton who says that saying is as foolish as “My mother, drunk or sober!”

  • Mark,
    As usual, Chesterton hit the nail on the head. I’m looking forward to the rest of your series. Maybe you’ll have time to address Congressman, John Calhoun’s observation in 1811, that “protection and patriotism and reciprocal.”

    Better than Calhoun, in my opinion, is William Blackstone’s “protection and subjection are reciprocal.” As noted in the Declaration of Independence, when the government of Great Britain removed us from its protection, we were in turn released from the duty of allegiance to the Mother Country.

    I think it is safe to say that in 1776 the Patriots gave up on being patriotic Englishmen. Our forefathers and foremothers transferred their feelings of civic affection to another entity, i.e. the new USA.

    Likewise today, or rather worse than anything perpetrated by George III, the government does little or nothing to protect us from a host of moral dangers. Indeed it aids and abets in inflicting abortion, sodomy, warmongering, and irreligion upon us and upon our children. In such a circumstance the issue of what patriotism means is called into question.

    For these reasons I do appreciate that your column raises such a timely topic.

  • Bob,
    Having read much of this when it was posted on I can assure you that you and Mark have much the same understanding of love, no matter the object: to sincerely desire and work to provide for the beloved the greatest good you are able.

  • Oops. The Calhoun quote should read: “protection and patriotism ARE reciprocal.”

  • noelfitz

    As usual, Mark, a brilliant article.

    You wrote:
    “The fundamental thing to learn is gratitude to God, who put us where we are and called us to love where we are.”

    Thus us powerful stuff and so true.

    However “My country – right or wrong” may not be true patriotism. Also claiming people from one part of a country and one set of views are patriotic and those who disagree are not is not true patriotism. In a democracy to blindly follow the leader is not true love of country.

    Patriotism may lead to worship of the State. There are problems.

    It is not for nothing that Samuel Johnson claimed “Patriotism is the last refuge of a scoundrel”. However, Boswell, Johnson’s biographer, assures us that Johnson was not indicting patriotism in general, only false patriotism.