Friends and Patriotism

Photo by Jp Valery on Unsplash.

Originally published August 1, 1992

Every group has issues it would rather not discuss; Quakers are no exception. For unprogrammed Friends, these issues include sin and Christ. When programmed Friends force us to discuss them, we often do so unwillingly. Patriotism is another such issue, except that no Quaker group forces us to confront it. Our attitudes seem to range from suspicion of patriotism to a conviction that it is evil.

Perhaps this is so because most Quakers equate patriotism with nationalism, and thus associate patriotism with war and a “my country, right or wrong” attitude. But what patriotism really means is love not of country but what our country stands for: equality, liberty, democracy, and freedom. These values make our country different from most others and much more desirable to live in. It is these values that we ought to find Quakerly ways to celebrate.

Most Friends, however, seemingly despise everything our country does; all they can do is be highly critical, a position as extreme and as wrongheaded as blindly supporting our country in all cases. For example, Philips Moulton wrote in the July 1990 Friends Journal: “Naturally, we tend to idealize those our government opposes . . . and to denigrate the other side.” Moulton is a respected mainstream Quaker peace activist, and his statement is, I believe, representative of a great many Quakers; for them to oppose U.S. foreign policy—and most of its domestic policy—is as natural as breathing. Of course the United States has not always lived up to its ideals. But many Quakers have castigated our country without end while muting their criticism of other countries.

This behavior was understandable during the Vietnam years, when, for perhaps the first time in history, the United States was perpetrating more evil than any nation on earth. But our relationship to our country never changed once the war ended. We continued to criticize the United States, but we did not criticize other countries with the same force, except for a few who were supported by the United States. In other words, we did not criticize evil wherever we found it. For example, we hardly criticized the equally destructive Russian invasion of Afghanistan. We muted—perhaps subverted—our pacifism and lent support to military “freedom” movements in the Middle East, Central America, and Southern Africa. We criticized Iran under the oppressive Shah, who had U.S. support, but seldom criticize Iran under the far more oppressive “revolutionary” regime.

Now that Communism has collapsed of its own accord in so many areas of the world, removing the principal twentieth-century alternative to our way of life, perhaps it is time to rethink our attitude toward our own country. One way of doing this is to adopt a more balanced view of our country’s ideals and actions, perhaps realizing that our nation is more than a repository of evil.

Another way is to rethink our attitude toward our country’s laws. Many Friends seem to define civil disobedience as breaking any law they feel is morally wrong. Some will not pay war taxes, testifying that God has called them to resist. I would argue that paying taxes is a basic responsibility of citizenship, a function of my almost mystical relationship to my country. God calls me to pay my taxes much as God calls others to resist them.

A number of Quakers can even strongly support some sections of a law and break others; many wish us to react to the recent immigration act in this way. Imagine if all our citizens examined every section of every law, deciding what to obey and disobey. Soon, clearly, we would be plunged into anarchy.

None of this should be construed as an argument that Quakers should forego civil disobedience. But we should be very cautious indeed about breaking the law.

Quakers might also consider breaking our relationships with violent revolutionaries all over the world. We might even consider a moratorium on our work for “justice,” given that our work often entails supporting groups who reject the Quaker peace testimony. Instead, we might consider a return to the relief work we do so well. We could return to our traditional function of trying to mediate disputes instead of clearly supporting one side against the other. Both sides in a dispute then might welcome Quaker humanitarian aid.

We could rethink, too, our attitude toward patriotism, examining what is good about our country as well as what is not. We could, as a beginning, think about how we might celebrate the values our country has given us. Consider flying the flag on patriotic holidays and displaying the flag during meeting for worship on Sundays. Singing ministry might include “God Bless America” as well as “Simple Gifts.” On Memorial Day, one might offer ministry about the sometimes desirable results of wars. Had the Germans been allowed to invade our country during World War II, for example, all U.S. Jews would have been murdered as well as all Quakers who would not acquiesce to Nazism. As a Quaker from a Jewish background, I am thankful this invasion was resisted, even though war was necessary to prevent it.

When war does come, let us criticize our enemies as well as ourselves. Let us examine the cause of the war and the possible results. In the recent Persian Gulf War, it was almost impossible not to castigate Iraq for its behavior; nonetheless, many Friends were unwilling to do so. And some Friends had difficulty realizing the United States was fighting to protect its access to Middle East oil, without which our economy and possibly our government would disintegrate. I do not argue that we abandon the peace testimony. I do argue that we should realize the possible consequences if our country does not choose to fight, including the possibility that we might lose our country’s most cherished values.

Let us celebrate what we hold dear. Let us search for ways to praise our country as well as criticize it.