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Reflecting on patriotism, community, and love

Scott Richert (New)When I was young, Independence Day was always observed on the Fourth of July. It didn’t matter if the Fourth fell on a Friday, a Sunday or a Wednesday; whichever day of the week it fell on, that was the day that everyone gathered to commemorate the Declaration of Independence in whatever fashion one’s local community did so. And, of course, all across the nation, those celebrations were capped that night with fireworks, and public TV would broadcast the national show from Washington, D.C., in all of the snowy, standard-definition glory that the UHF band had to offer.

I don’t remember when it became common practice to transfer local celebrations of Independence Day to some date other than the Fourth of July, if the Fourth fell on an inconvenient day of the week; but I do remember being — well, outraged may be a bit too much, but annoyed is definitely not strong enough. Not only is the Second or the Sixth of July something other than the Fourth, but the idea that part of the nation might celebrate Independence Day on the Fourth while towns here and there observed it on the Third and the next city over transferred it to the Fifth offended my patriotic sensibilities. Are we “one nation, under God,” or aren’t we?

That last question may be one for a different day and a different column. Today, I take a somewhat more latitudinarian view of local communities celebrating Independence Day on, say, the Second of July (as we did this year here in Huntington, Indiana), not because I’m less patriotic than in the past, but more so — or more truly so. Because while I think I can honestly say that I have never been a nationalist, throughout most of the 20th century and on into the 21st, nationalism has often been mixed in with patriotism, even though patriotism, unlike nationalism, is a positive impulse — the same moral obligation covered by the Fourth Commandment, to honor our father and our mother. As Pope St. John Paul II noted in his book “Memory and Identity”: “Patriotism is a love for everything to do with our native land: its history, its traditions, its language, its natural features. It is a love which extends also to the works of our compatriots and the fruits of their genius.”

Patriotism is bound up with the reality of a particular people in a particular place. It’s a reality that young children, whose horizons are limited, come by naturally (and we know what the Lord said about learning to be like young children). It’s the reality expressed in a beautiful little passage from Ross Lockridge’s sprawling novel of life in Indiana before and after the Civil War: “Johnny Shawnessy decided that some day when he was big enough to go away from home by himself, he would go over and get Nell Gaither, and they would get into a big covered wagon and go down and find the National Pike, and they would ride off together toward those big plains and those far western mountains beneath the shining stars, where the land was fair and free, where the Indians lived in tepees, and the streams were full of fish, in the country called the United States of America, which was somewhere in Raintree County.”

Like Johnny, we come to know the wider world, and the people in it, by analogy to the little world in which we live our daily lives. It’s within that daily life that patriotism blossoms. And the life of our community matters more than the community by analogy that we call the nation, because a nation has life only to the extent that the communities that compose it thrive. And so, if it strengthens Huntington to celebrate Independence Day on July 2 rather than July 4, that’s when it should be celebrated.

As John Paul II knew, there are lessons to be drawn for the life of the Church from our experience of patriotism (and warnings to be drawn from our experience of nationalism). But that, too, is a different column for another day.

Scott P. Richert is publisher for OSV.

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