What is the Relationship between Patriotism and Justice?

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I’ve been looking closely at David T. KoyzisPolitical Visions and Illusions: A Survey and Christian Critique of Contemporary Ideologies. A well researched, firmly grounded, original approach to how religious commitments affect political ideology. Much of what Koyzis writes in his chapter on nationalism resonates with me.

In that chapter, Koyzis critiques nationalism as idolatrous because it locates supremacy in the state, defined as a transcendent reality. What makes nationalism idolatrous is that it demands unconditional loyalty of the citizen to the state, over and above all other loyalties.

The way out, according to Koyzis, is “patriotic loyalty.” Patriotism is an appropriate expression of love of country, but that love is rooted in justice. If justice is defined as the giving that which is due to all in a community, then patriotic love is the expression of “shared commitment” to the members of a national community bound by a political power in a defined set of geographical boundaries.

What does a shared commitment look like in such a community? It seems that it would take the form of people looking to the common good of the other members of the community. This notion is at the heart of the res publica, or the republic, also known as a commonwealth.

Patriotism, understood through the lens of justice, is sharply distinguished from nationalism. Nationalism is exclusivist, in that only two groups of people exist: those who are members of the community and those who are outside of it. Those inside are superior to those on the outside. And those who are superior have the right to act upon those who are inferior in any way they choose. Race could be the animating force of this acting upon the other, or religion, or greed.

But patriotism, based upon justice, does not adopt an “us versus them” attitude either within the community or without. Patriotism is inclusivist because it is rooted in love of community that upholds and pursues the common good of all its citizens. It is a limited love–patriotism does not seek to exalt the community over the family or religion. But it is a just love, that is one that is properly placed and applied.

Justice unites a society, while injustice breaks it apart. During the American Civil War, the injustice of slavery shattered the Union and extinguished the lives of many hundreds of thousands. But justice restored the Union by ending slavery and bringing about reconciliation between the sections. It was limited in its application, in that African Americans were not given what they were due–the rights and privileges of full citizenship and respect for their human dignity. Much more had to be done to effect justice for an entire segment of the community that had been neglected and abused for a very long time. But true patriots point out injustices that exist in the community, and pay the price to see that those injustices are corrected.

When approaching the idea of American exceptionalism, there are two expressions–one is nationalistic and one is patriotic. That is, one is exclusivist and the other is inclusivist. One is closed, the other open. One is based on an idolatrous conception of America, the other is based on a Christian conception and application of justice. One sees America as the pinnacle of human existence. The other sees America as a community of shared ideals that are rooted in the rule of law as defined by transcendent ethical standards. This community will not always live up to its ideals. But it is a community that cannot live with itself until it does.

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