The Practical Side: Patriotism

It would be plausible that any writer who fought in World War I and lived through World War II would have something to say about nation-building. Should a Christian find some personal identity in one’s country? I found two occasions where Lewis talks about this practical issue. One occasion is a letter dated May 25, 1951. The other, more lengthy explanation, is in The Four Loves, where it’s tucked into the chapter, “Likings and Loves for the Sub-human.”His 1951 letter briefly touches on the idea of patriotism as tied to what is common and familiar. Lewis says, “I think love for one’s country means chiefly love for people who have a good deal in common with oneself (language, clothes, institutions) and in that is very like love of one’s family or school: or like love (in a strange place) for anyone who once lived in one’s home town.” As you know, Lewis has his eye on something larger. He goes on to say, “And it is good, because any natural help towards our spiritual duty of loving is good and God seems to build our higher loves round our merely natural impulses — sex, maternity, kinship, old acquaintance etc.”

In The Four Loves (1960), he elaborates on this idea of place as one of five layers that can be forms or degrees of patriotism. “With this love for the place,” he says, “there goes a love for the way of life; for beer and tea and open fires, trains with compartments in them and an unarmed police force and all the rest of it; for the local dialect and (a shade less) for our native language.” He then references Chesterton: “As Chesterton says, a man’s reasons for not wanting his country to be ruled by foreigners are very like his reasons for not wanting his house to be burned down; because he ‘could not even begin’ to enumerate all the things he would miss.”

Patriotism in its best sense builds on the love we feel in a family with a sense of loving those outside – our neighbors. Jesus commands us to love our neighbors and that begins next door, on our street, at the community center. Lewis says that this produces the “spiritual muscles which Grace may later put to a higher service.” In the best circumstances, we also realize that others in other countries feel the same way about their country, and there’s a leveled respect for, “the Frenchmen like café complet just as we like bacon and eggs,” because, as Lewis says, “It would not be home unless it were different.”

Our attitude about the past formulates the second ingredient of patriotism. Lewis means those great stories that live on in our imagination, the ones who anchor us and also, “impose an obligation and to hold out an assurance.” We know that the reality of any country’s history is dotted with good and likely smeared with evil, but unbridled cynicism is not the solution. Lewis says that he thinks it’s, “possible to be strengthened by the image of the past without being either deceived or puffed up.” He suggests that the heroic stories ought to be passed down so that our imaginations might be stoked, not in a form of indoctrination that poisons our opinions, but as stories unto their own. “The schoolboy who hears them should dimly feel,” Lewis says, “–though of course he cannot put it into words—that he is hearing saga. Let him be thrilled—preferably “out of school”—by the “Deeds that won the Empire”; but the less we mix this up with his “history lessons” or mistake it for a serious analysis—worse still, a justification—of imperial policy, the better.”

The third strand of patriotism is probably the most recognized. Lewis calls it, “a firm, even prosaic belief that our own nation, in sober fact, has long been, and still is markedly superior to all others.” This is certainly a form of patriotism that can steer us wrong over time, so to lose our judgment. It will likely not be something that happens immediately, but as experience sets in and bigotry often sits close by, we might become like the old clergyman that Lewis references, one who his country to have the bravest men and fairest women.

Fourthly, Lewis says that patriotism can have the ingredient of duty toward other countries, not out of kindness, but from a supposed position of power. This continues to cycle and Lewis points out that it doesn’t always bring negative results. There is certainly an alturistic side to England’s empire building as there is with the United States of today. But it can go very wrong. Lewis says,

Some nations who have also felt it have stressed the rights not the duties. To them, some foreigners were so bad that one had the right to exterminate them. Others, fitted only to be hewers of wood and drawers of water to the chosen people, had better be made to get on with their hewing and drawing. Dogs, know your betters! I am far from suggesting that the two attitudes are on the same level. But both are fatal. Both demand that the area in which they operate should grow “wider still and wider”. And both have about them this sure mark of evil: only by being terrible do they avoid being comic. If there were no broken treaties with Redskins, no extermination of the Tasmanians, no gas-chambers and no Belsen, no Amritsar, Black and Tans or Apartheid, the pomposity of both would be roaring farce.

Finally, there’s a point where patriotism bleeds lawlessness. “When the natural loves become lawless,” Lewis says, “they do not merely do harm to other loves; they themselves cease to be the loves they were—to be loves at all.”

These layers don’t necessarily build in a systematic way, but they can. At root, there seems to be the simple want and love for home, for place. And sometimes that place becomes threatened and needs to be defended. We might stand up on moral grounds of justice or we might blend it with the sentiment of patriotism about our country. Lewis thinks the latter carries a stronger reflection of sentimentality, I suspect because it has a rootedness that mere ethics ignore.


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