Balancing Love of Country and Love of God
by Rabbi Eric Yoffie
Originally posted in The Huffington Post
I am a religious man who loves his country. I have always been an American patriot, but now, more than ever before, I feel a sense of shared destiny with my fellow citizens. My love of country is not a simple matter, of course. It is rooted in a profound identification with American ideals, and especially with the values of freedom and tolerance that I see as central to the American creed. But it is rooted as well in the feel and the touch of particular places of enduring beauty, and in the connection that I experience with other Americans who manage to be, at least much of the time, ornery, outspoken, friendly and fair.
I am also more comfortable now with American symbols than I have ever been. A child of the 60s, I once had mixed feeling about the American flag. But I now see the flag as a sign of favor and high ideals that provides comfort and inspiration to a distressed people. The flag is meaningful symbolism, and Jewish tradition, rich in ritual, understands the value of symbols. Like most Americans, when I see the flag, I am filled with pride.
All of these thoughts came to me as I read “What So Proudly We Hail,” an anthology of stories, speeches, and song edited by Amy and Leon Kass and Diana Schaub. Beautifully done, the book is intended to promote good character and honorable conduct along with love of country; clearly the authors are concerned that we are failing in this regard and that “creating a deep national bond and spirit” is more of a challenge now than before.
But this treatment of patriotism raises other issues for me. Like religious people before me, I struggle with the conflict that arises between love of country and love of God, a conflict that seems to be particularly acute at this moment in American history.
Many of those who speak the language of patriotism nowadays seem to think that America is both totally self-sufficient and always right. Even worse, these same people are likely to identify themselves as religious, and in fact are the sort of religious folks who believe, with unshakable faith, in their own rectitude. Not only that, they then transfer their religious sensibilities to their understanding of patriotism and arrive at the conclusion that the United States has a special claim to divine election. In short, not only is America for them the richest, freest and most splendid country in the world, it is also the country of God and its citizens are the people of God.
I too, it should be said, believe in American exceptionalism. I believe that an objective case can be made that the United States offers a combination of liberty, pluralism, free market vitality and human rights protections that is unique in the historical experience of humankind. I am influenced in these convictions by how Jews have fared; they have found a measure of security and freedom here that they have found nowhere else in their long history. And yet, I am fully aware of the risks of talking this way: the language of exceptionalism is fraught with danger, and those who speak that language today tend toward idolatrous nationalism — which is contrary to my most fundamental religious convictions. Religious people worship God; they do not worship countries or government, no matter how impressive.
My answer, while unsatisfactory, is to acknowledge the reality of my dual loyalties. On the one hand, I am a true patriot, proud and assertive about my national loyalties. On the other hand, I recognize that true patriotism requires a significant measure of humility. Humility is required because however convinced I am of the virtues of our country, I need to be aware of the interdependent nature of the world and of the fact that people in other places may feel about their homelands much as we feel about ours. Also, humility is necessary because other Americans, whether acting out of conscience or religious conviction, will surely interpret the American values that I hold dear very differently than do I — and I must defer to the political system to referee conflicting claims. And finally and most important, I need to be humble about my patriotism because I believe that wisdom ultimately resides not with our country’s leaders but with God. Like the Jewish sovereign in Deuteronomy 17:18-20, who is commanded to carry and study the Torah, we must both exercise the duties of citizenship and study our sacred texts; in this way, we will have a standard by which to subordinate the power of princes to what God demands of us.
In short, my political loyalties are intense, instinctual, and flow from deep conviction, but, of necessity, they are also limited. And limiting them, I believe, is the best way to increase human dignity and freedom in this great country in which we live.