The voice of the dissenter is often the conscience of the nation. Christian theologian Reinhold Niebuhr's prophetic voice rang forth in the first half of the twentieth century; Martin Luther King Jr.'s voice was a clarion call for freedom and democracy in the century's closing half.
"God didn't call America to do what she's doing in the world now," King thundered from his Atlanta pulpit exactly two months before his death at the hands of a cowardly racial terrorist. "God didn't call America to engage in a senseless, unjust war." Here, of course, King referred to the Vietnam War, and he took a lashing in public for his dissenting views. He was accused of being unpatriotic. He was charged with moral treason. Other black leaders like Roy Wilkins and Whitney Young lambasted him (though they later came to acknowledge, as did the nation, that King's views were courageous and correct). And yet, King was one of the greatest patriots this nation has produced. He proved it by giving his life in a fight to defend this country's best side against its worst.
As we struggle for ethical guidance in the shadow of terrorism and war, it is good to remember that dissent helps national flourishing and aids in clarifying our political vision. If King's actions against war prove anything, it's that there's a huge difference between patriotism and nationalism. Patriotism is the critical affirmation of one's country in light of its best values, including the attempt to correct it when it's in error. Nationalism is the uncritical support of one's nation regardless of its moral or political bearing.
Patriotism "often takes the form of beliefs in the social system and values of one's country. Expressions of nationalism, on the other hand, are often appeals to advance the national interests in the international order." This latter version of an insular and narrowly conceived national pride is expressed in the slogan, "my country, right or wrong." Too often nationalism has prevailed over patriotism in expressions of national pride. The confusion between the two has blurred the difference between love and worship of country, a distinction King never failed to make.
In a commencement address at Lincoln University in 1961, King praised the American dream and the Declaration of Independence, saying that "seldom if ever in the history of the world has a sociopolitical document expressed in such profoundly eloquent and unequivocal language the dignity and the worth of human personality." And when he gave his famous "I Have a Dream" speech before the Lincoln Memorial in 1963, King reaffirmed that his dream was "deeply rooted in the American dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: `We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.' "
But King understood the contradictions at the heart of American society. In his Lincoln University commencement address, King said "since the founding fathers of our nation dreamed this noble dream, America has been something of a schizophrenic personality, tragically divided against herself." America, King understood, preaches democracy but practices its selective application. Moreover, King understood the perils of an isolationist nationalism that celebrates one's country at the expense of recognizing one's global citizenship. In such a case, loyalty to nation might turn vicious, demanding that one subordinate moral principle to narrow national self-interest. In his church sermon, King said that in Vietnam, America had "committed more war crimes almost than any nation in the world." And we wouldn't stop it "because of our pride and our arrogance as a nation."