Reprinted from Sightings. Used with permission.

Patriotism is certainly not unique to the United States, but in America the spirit of patriotism is especially high around this time of the year. As we commemorate those who have sacrificed their lives for the country, Hollywood moviemakers also join or reinforce this patriotic mood by producing blockbuster movies targeted at Memorial Day or Independence Day. Although for many Americans, Memorial Day signals little more than the beginning of barbecue season, it also serves as one occasion when we can think about the meaning of loving our nation.

We are constantly reminded through the lessons of history that patriotism can be as dangerous as it can be noble. Patriotism sometimes takes on an unbridled form that knows no moral limits, a sentiment revealed in a slogan such as "my country, right or wrong." When patriotism is imbued with nationalism or ethnocentricism, our love of country may turn into an exclusive notion of national superiority that often leads to moral blindness.

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Given patriotism's potential for causing harm, it is not surprising that some people have objected to or criticized the very idea of patriotism. For instance, Leo Tolstoy condemns patriotism as evil, arguing that it is only concerned with the well-being of one's own country and promotes national interests at the expense of others'. Moreover, he sees patriotism as antithetical to Christian morality, since Christian morality is not defined or limited by nationality.

Is patriotism a moral virtue? Should Christians be patriots? In "For Love of Country," Martha C. Nussbaum (with many others) addresses patriotism as a moral problem. She judges that patriotism has a strong nationalistic tendency which may develop into a moral parochialism. What we need, Nussbaum then suggests, is to focus less on patriotism and more on our effort to educate people as the citizens of the world. Thus, by appealing to the Stoic model of cosmopolitanism with Kantian moral accent, she proposes cosmopolitan education. Such education attempts to foster a respect for basic features of human beings regardless of national identity and to justify our particular affections within the universal scope of morality.

Not everyone agrees with such negative appraisals of patriotism. For example, communitarian philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre contends that patriotism is a moral virtue. He claims that patriotism is a moral virtue because it is a product of shared beliefs of a community, which recognizes and defines what is moral virtue. In his view, patriotism provides a strong motivation to protect the common good of the nation to which one belongs. Patriotism fosters the kind of genuine loyalty that a liberal society cannot produce.

Regardless of how we assess its virtues or vices, it is necessary to recognize that patriotism is a moral problem which demands considered, critical reflection. Just what kind of loyalty do we owe to our country? What responsibilities must we bear that transcend national boundaries?

We should avoid two extremes. On one side, there is an uncritical endorsement of our nation and its practices. On the other side, there is a lack of historical consciousness that can steer us into political apathy. All of us, especially those who belong to religious traditions, have a call to reflect seriously on what it means to be a citizen of a nation. Patriotism is a moral problem. Augustine pointed out long ago that Christians do not live in the earthly kingdom to merely affirm the secular world as it is, but are instead called to transform the world in which they live. For all people of faith, this should include our nation, its values, and the ways those values are practiced both within and outside of our national boundaries.

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