Our national anthem may be the only one in the world that ends in a question.
That’s just the first verse, of course. Francis Scott Key wrote two more verses, but as a nation we’ve adopted just the first, leaving in history’s dustbin the somewhat depressing and jingoistic second and third verses. Read them and you’ll realize that’s probably for the best.
Unfortunately, the Star Spangled Banner has in recent years become wrapped in a political miasma. Some view it as sacrosanct, a bit of difficult-to-sing music that must be honored like the flag. Others see it as representative of a nation that refuses to live up to the principles that brought it into existence in the first place.
And as is often the case in 21st century America, there appears to be no common ground. You’re either for us or against us; you’re either a patriot or a traitor. Logic, reason and the ability to disagree and discuss and issue with grace and civility have gone the way of the rotary telephone.
It doesn’t have to be that way, of course. We are all called to be patriots, to realize the blessings that the nation has to offer when it lives up to its promises. Among those promises, of course, are those spelled out so eloquently on the side of the Statue of Liberty in words written by Jewish poet Emma Lazarus.
“From her beacon-hand glows world-wide welcome … give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,” it says.
“Send these, the homeless, the tempest-tossed, to me …”
But for some those words are hollow and meaningless. Build a wall, they say. Keep immigrants out, they scream, sometimes while they are dressed in shirts meant to resemble the flag (which, by the way, goes against the regulations surrounding Old Glory. You’re not supposed to reproduce its image on clothing. Look it up.)
And consider this: The one thing our nation asks of all of us, patriots real and faux alike, is that we vote, that we take part in the democratic process. Yet the voting numbers paint a picture of people who talk about patriotism, who sometimes scream about it, but who shirk their patriotic duty. When only 20 percent of registered voters turn out to cast their ballots, well, that’s not very patriotic.
Many of us act as if putting a flag decal on our cars or trucks is all it takes. It’s akin to the notion that going to church once in a while makes you a good Christian.
We all know there’s more to it than that.
Patriotism, the real-deal patriotism, is a good thing. Pope Francis earlier this spring noted that the Catholic Church has always promoted love and respect for one’s nation and cultures. He also warned of the dangers of turning such affection “into the hatred and exclusion of others.”
He told the Pontifical Academy of Social Sciences in May that the church “notes with concern the reemergence, a bit everywhere in the world, of aggressive currents against foreigners, especially immigrants, as well as that growing nationalism that overlooks the common good.”
He sees signs of “a confrontational nationalism that puts up walls, indeed, even racism and anti-Semitism,” he said.
The state that we should support and serve is meant to be at the service of the people, families, “the common good and peace,” he noted. “However, too often states become subservient to the interests of a dominant group, mostly for economic profit, who oppress — among other things — ethnic, linguistic or religious minorities who are on their territory.”
“Migrants are not a threat to the culture, traditions and values of the nation that welcomes them,” the pope added.
So while we’re enjoying our picnics this Fourth of July, while we’re watching the “bombs bursting in air” during the fireworks displays, let’s try to remember what this nation — the object of our affection — stands for. Or should stand for.
We are “of the people, by the people, and for the people.” We are that “shining city on a hill” that people strive to reach. We are, or should be, a place of refuge, of opportunity, of equality. Life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness should be available to every one of us.
If we are not all of those things — and there are obviously times when we’re not — then we must be a nation of people who try harder to be what we ought to be. We ought to be patriots in the best sense of the word.
Record Editor Emeritus