On Patriotism

No national cultures are sacred except insofar as they reflect the Creator

Charlie Camosy, a stalwart of the American Solidarity Party, argues that we should condemn the Capitol violence of “1-6” without using words like “sacred” and “temple” and “desecration.” In his view, they are “not appropriate words for a place which (while very significant) is not sacred, not a temple, and has not been desecrated.” A friend of mine counters that “The powers that be are ordained of God. So said the Apostle Paul. Their authority and functions and the places dedicated to their exercise are sacred (or, set apart).”

Test cases come to mind. What about the places in North Korea dedicated to Kim Jong-un’s exercise of power? Or suppose we shift from the notorious to the obscure. What about, say, Suriname? Are its government centers also sacred?

Let’s return, then, to St. Paul. In Romans 13: 1–7 he teaches that we all should “be subject to the governing authorities” because “there is no authority except from God” and anyone who “resists the authorities resists what God has appointed.” But there’s more. In the next verse he tells us that “rulers are not a terror to good conduct but to bad.”

So what are we to say about rulers who are manifestly a terror to good conduct? St. Augustine and St. Thomas tell us that unjust laws are no laws at all. Indeed, to the extent that a ruler rules unjustly, he is no ruler at all. Prudence, to be sure, requires that our response to such “laws” and “rulers” must take into account the common good. What passes for revolution only too often leads to something worse than that which incited it.

Still, the worse can also replace the bad when one appeals to unjust authorities. Paul writes to the Romans while he is jailed in Rome. And why was he in Rome? Because in the court of King Agrippa, he appealed to his Roman citizenship. After the hearing Agrippa wryly commented that “This man could have been set free if he had not appealed to Caesar” (Acts 26: 32).

Such reflections, and our own current tribulations, raise a vexed question: Who is the real patriot? Again, St. Thomas Aquinas, the Common Doctor, is most instructive. In discussing justice, he introduces the role of piety. There is, first, the piety we owe God. Then come both filial piety and patriotism. Filial piety is the reverence we owe, as a matter of justice, to our parents. Patriotism is the reverence we owe, as a matter of justice, to our motherland, the home of our nation. Thomas observes that in their distinct ways both help form our nature, the very nature which God creates. The real patriots, on this account, are those who honor their nation.

St. John Paul II, a great Polish patriot, writes in his Memory and Identity that “our native land is our heritage and…the whole patrimony derived from that heritage.” He points out that “the concept of patria includes the values and the spiritual content that make up the culture of a given nation.”

Pope John Paul II, we recall, travelled widely. When he arrived at his destination, his custom was to kiss the soil of the land he was visiting. How strange, even bizarre, it would have been had he kissed any of the State buildings.

While not all cultures are equally rich, and while today’s cultures are works in (fitful) progress, each culture can give rise to patriots. No doubt, many of them could also give rise to tyrants. So it was for Rome and its empire. So it is for the United States with its Red and Blue divisions, and, yes, for little Suriname (whose official language is…Dutch!). Nonetheless, whatever respect is due them or their seats of governing, none are sacred except insofar as they reflect the Creator.


Jim Hanink is an independent scholar, albeit more independent than scholarly!

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