HARVARD SQUARE COMMENTARY

May 19, 2008
From Liberty Street

Religious Nationalism

John Turner


Surely, I can't be the only person in this country who's growing weary of being told I have to worship "Americanism," even though I have nothing to do with defining the brand of Americanism I have to worship, and especially since that brand has been cranked up by those I consider the foulest elements of the American nation.

I thought we were supposed to have freedom of religion in this country and could decide for ourselves what it is -- if anything -- we bow down before.

Maybe it's just as well for me to go on record and list some of the things I neither worship nor have perfect respect for.

  • The office of the president of the United States: I'm sick of the dopey prescription that one need not like  a particular president but that one must respect his office. What does that mean? Am I supposed to have reverence for the chairs and desks in the place where he works? The presidency is a constitutional position. It has certain responsibilities and authorities attached to it. It is not a transcendental entity. I have no duty whatsoever to be in awe of it, or to show a phony deference to any of its incumbents.

  • The commander in chief: I have no commander in chief. I do not work for the government of the United States, and even when I did, my only obligation was to carry out the legal commands that descended to me from the president. I had no requirement to go goo-goo eyed over them, or to think they represented a directive from god.

  • Our troops: They are not my troops. I don't own them in any way, nor do I have an emotional investment in them. They are often used in ways I disapprove and find detestable. When they drop bombs on houses full of children, I have no responsibility to approve of it. If I did, I would make myself into a disgraceful person. When they are injured, I have the same sympathy for them I have for any other injured persons. Their hurts are no more sacrosanct than any other hurts. What I wish for them is the same thing I wish for all citizens: that they be treated fairly and that they receive the care they need to live decent, happy lives. I have no inclination to cheer them when they march down the street in formation.

  • The American Dream: I don't know what it is, but if it actually is what it is normally proclaimed to be on TV, then, it's egotistical, juvenile and cheap. Why should anyone respect a thing of that sort?

  • The flag: I don't see any serious need for a national flag. More often than not, it is used to promote disgusting behavior, as in the practice of making its image into bits of jewelry and then pushing the idea that if you don't find that kind decoration attractive, there's something wrong with you. I have no tendency to get teary-eyed when I see it flapping in the wind. I don't object to its being used as a traditional symbol of the nation on ceremonial occasions, but whenever it is employed to promote dubious political behavior, it turns rancid, and that's the way it is used frequently nowadays. I would never hang the flag on my front porch.

  • Calling America the greatest country on earth: I never know what definition of greatness people have in mind when they use this phrase, but the spirit of it is always boastful and obnoxious. Every nation is a mixed bag of decencies and bad behavior. My reading of history doesn't tell me that bad behavior has been less frequent in the United States  than in other places on earth. What I want for my country is not greatness but decency and a desire among most of its citizens to be generous and humane, not only towards their fellow citizens but towards all the people of the world.

World literature tells us that the United States, since its inception, has been caught up in an immature braggadocio that is our least attractive feature. Right now it causes us to be, probably, the most disliked people on earth. I don't know what it is that we're supposed to get from continuing to exhibit this attitude. The most likely explanation for it is a feeling of inferiority which we try to mask from ourselves by boastfulness. We seem to be like uncertain teenagers who are trying to bully their way through the world. There's no cause for this feeling. There's no reason to think we're worse than other people, just as there's no reason to think we're always better. As a nation, we have done some things we deserve to be proud of just as we have done other things that shame us. We ought o be trying to add to the one category and avoid the other.

Worshipping ourselves is not the way to national improvement. Truth is, it's an icky habit we should have long since set aside.


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