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Apostasy for All
Against the patriotic gore of the American reclamation narrative
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Reclaiming Patriotism in an Age of Extremes by Steven B. Smith. Yale University Press, 256 pages.

We can say of patriotism today what the historian Edmund Morgan remarked of the Puritan ethos in the Revolutionary era: it is a primary rhetorical weapon employed in political struggle. But even more fundamentally, patriotism is a tether that binds political adversaries together, coalescing divergent politics around the tenets of American civil religion. Morgan, along with other scholars of American religion in the second half of the twentieth century, such as Perry Miller, Sacvan Bercovitch, and Robert Bellah, was interested in how Puritan origins gave to American politics a persistently religious dimension, despite the formal secularism guaranteed by the Constitution.

Morgan and his peers found a bedrock dogma of American civil religion in the idea of providence: a belief that Americans are a chosen people in the biblical sense, in possession of a special covenant with God, or, as the Puritan John Winthrop prophesized in 1630, “We shall be as a city upon a hill.” Within this coterie, it was Bellah who went furthest in marshalling the idea of civil religion to restore national solidarity in the wake of the 1960s. In 1967, he wrote an essay clarifying the concept of civil religion, followed by a book in the 1970s entitled The Broken Covenant that made an explicit appeal to patriotism: “It is of the measure of a republic that its citizens must love it, not merely obey it. The external covenant must become an internal covenant,” Bellah wrote. He added a cautionary note to radicals and intellectuals, writing that “critical Americans must not leave the tradition of American idealism entirely to the chauvinists. . . . No one has changed a great nation without appealing to its soul.”

Today, the tradition continues with Yale political theorist Steven B. Smith’s Reclaiming Patriotism in an Age of Extremes, which follows on the heels of other Trump-era exhortations to patriotic virtue, including Timothy Snyder’s On Tyranny, Jill Lepore’s This America, and Mark Lilla’s The Once and Future Liberal. The ubiquity of the patriotism reclamation narrative is striking, popping up ad infinitum in books and op-ed pages, seemingly always in production on the shopfloor of centrist punditry. The most recent iterations add to the weight of a half century of productivity from a patriotic intelligentsia whose preferred mode is reaction, most prominently, in this century, to the attacks of September 11 and the subsequent War on Terror—in the cases of Michael Kazin, Andrew Sullivan, and Donald Kagan. Earlier, the unpatriotic culprit was the heterodox left of the 1960s, a collection of dissenting social movements that stirred the vehemence of public intellectuals, notably John Schaar, a professor of political theory at Berkeley and erstwhile fellow traveler of the movements—Schaar had been an influence on the student-led Free Speech Movement in 1964. In a later essay, “The Case for Patriotism,” Schaar would issue a rejoinder to the student movements he helped spur. “The patriot,” Schaar wrote, “is one who is grateful for the legacy and recognizes that the legacy makes him a debtor. There is a whole way of being in the world, captured best by the word reverence, which defines life by debts.”

In Reclaiming Patriotism, Smith comes close to saying the same thing, defining patriotism as “a sentiment of gratitude and appreciation for who we are and what has made us.” He emphasizes that American exceptionalism cannot be dissociated from Winthrop and the Puritans’ foundation of a political community with a transcendent mission, from the notion that Americans are a chosen people with providential purpose. Perhaps this is why accusations of anti-Americanism and insufficient patriotism have proven so injurious to those they’ve attached to in American history, from abolitionists to labor unionists to antiwar activists: for the patriot, the question of patriotism’s value is never a wholly worldly matter to be decided upon by the utterly profane mechanisms of democratic debate, intellectual inquiry, and free thought. Instead, the question is itself a devotional test; to dissent is already to be counted among the damned.

Naive and Sentimental

Patriotism is sodden with a religious sentimentality that Schaar and Smith insist makes it paradoxically safe for liberal democracy. Enter the Christ of the patriotic reclamation tradition: Abraham Lincoln. If the heathen radical is an antagonist, Lincoln is the mythic protagonist who issues a new genesis, his sacrifice our atonement, his speeches our holy writs. In this story, Lincoln’s accomplishment was to give American patriotism a purely civic meaning: reverence, but only for the ideals of the Declaration of Independence; devotion, but only to the principles of Constitutional governance; loyalty and love, but only to the political bonds of citizenship in a democracy. Lincoln “proposes a strictly political definition of our nationhood,” Schaar writes, “one which liberates us from the parochialisms of race and religion, and one which severs patriotic devotion from the culture of national power.” Likewise, Smith finds in Lincoln an inchoate “political theology” manifest today in the “nonsectarian rituals and symbols” of patriotic pomp—the Fourth of July, the National Anthem, the Pledge of Allegiance, and so on. In a passage that cites Bellah’s seminal essay on civil religion from 1967, Smith draws on Lincoln’s 1838 speech, entitled “On the Perpetuation of Our Political Institutions,” in which he urged “reverence for the laws” as “the political religion of the nation.” For Smith, this serves as textual evidence that Lincoln favored a patriotism defined strictly by the rule of law, or what some call “constitutional patriotism,” and without appeal, as Schaar’s reading of Lincoln equally emphasizes, to nationhood, race, or culture.

Perhaps this is why accusations of anti-Americanism and insufficient patriotism have proven so injurious to those they’ve attached to in American history, from abolitionists to labor unionists to antiwar activists.

This glossing of Lincoln introduces an intellectual strategy: redeem American patriotism by sharply distinguishing it from nationalism. Poor Lincoln is charged with buffering the love of country from the cultural politics of national identity. It’s a tall task, and one that never dawned on him. The desire to parse out patriotism from nationalism is largely a product of post-World War II intellectual culture and the imperatives of Cold War American exceptionalism. Having defeated fascism, the patriotism-nationalism dichotomy neatly mapped the contrasting moral legitimacies of American and British collective identities against those of continental Europe. Perfectly tailored to fit America’s intuitive sense of moral righteousness, this dichotomy lifted American national identity out of the blood-and-soil politics of European conflagration. America was New World, enlightened, civic-oriented, pragmatic, and inclusive; Europe was Old World, blinkered, culture-obsessed, pugnacious, and exclusionary. In short, we had patriotism, they had nationalism.

The postwar origins of the patriotism-nationalism dichotomy can be found in a George Orwell essay of 1945, entitled “Notes on Nationalism.” There, Orwell identifies nationalism as “the habit of identifying oneself with a single nation or other unit, placing it beyond good and evil and recognizing no other duty than that of advancing its interests.” By contrast, Orwell thinks of patriotism as “devotion to a particular place and a particular way of life, which one believes to be the best in the world but has no wish to force on other people.” How someone of Orwell’s sensitivity could have entertained the idea of a people, convinced of their unparalleled greatness yet harboring no desire to spread it around, speaks to the seductiveness of the patriotism-nationalism dichotomy. Schaar echoes Orwell, yearning for a kind of patriotism that “can even believe its own principles superior and yet feel no missionary urge to impose them on others.” And Smith, in a part of the text that invokes Orwell’s essay directly, writes that “there is an insular, even defensive tone to patriotism that is opposed to all ideologies of power and conquest.” For each writer, as for the broader redemptive tradition, patriotism accomplishes nothing less than the dissociation of political commitments from the will to power.

At exactly the moment this repurposed ideology of American exceptionalism was taking root, the historian Merle Curti countered Orwell with a formative book-length study of American patriotism. The Roots of American Loyalty, published in 1946, was prefaced this way:

Patriotism, though it has meant many things and been put to various, even contradictory uses, may nevertheless be defined as love of country, pride in it, and readiness to make sacrifices for what is considered its best interest. . . . Patriotism, so defined, is related to nationalism. A more inclusive and complex pattern of ideas and interests, nationalism developed in the modern world as the philosophy of the national state. It rested on the assumption that, by and large, the unified nation is the highest value in civilization. . . . The story of American patriotism cannot be told without some recognition of its relationships to the patterns of national thought and feeling in the western world.

Curti discerned the American patriot’s inherent nationalism and regarded patriotism as America’s name for nationalism, an observation that undercuts the rationale governing many of today’s reclamation narratives. Smith uses as his point of departure a 2019 National Conservatism Conference in which leading panelists invoked the idea of nationalism as an organizing principle; Lepore makes much of Trump’s identification as a nationalist at a 2018 rally. Slapdash treatment of these anecdotes permits these writers to frame contemporary right-wing nationalism as a new political phenomenon, or at least a newly popularized politics in the age of Trump, against which the return to patriotic lore appears a necessary retort.

By interpreting Trumpism as discrete and wholly new, Smith and Lepore also narrate nationalism as a peculiar menace, emanating from the dark corners of American life rather than the mainspring of American politics. This leads to an evident poverty of analysis, both discursive and historical. For example, while it is true that conservative intellectuals and policy influencers gathered in 2019 under the banner of nationalism, theNew York Timesreports that Smith’s two most hallowed patriots—Edmund Burke and Abraham Lincoln—were some of the most uttered names among the gathered nationalists. And while it is true that Trump identified as a nationalist, he also, and more often, identified as a patriot, including naming his supporters at the Capitol on January 6, 2021, “great patriots,” and contemplating the founding of a “Patriot Party.”

It is not enough, in cases like these, to assert that conservative nationalists have misappropriated Lincoln, or to answer that Trump lacks consistency, that he really means nationalism when he says patriotism. Rather, it is the rhetorical slippage that is instructive; it is Lincoln’s motley appeal that demands explanation; it is the untidiness of politics that is telling. What allows politicians to indiscriminately slide from “patriot” to “nationalist” without sacrificing any salience? Why is Lincoln’s contemporary legacy so politically evasive, claimed effectively by both social liberals and conservative nationalists?

Neglecting such questions produces an egregiously reductive take on contemporary politics, especially on matters of race, the barely hidden engine of patriotic politics. As part of his defense of patriotism, Smith makes the following claim: “The term ‘white nationalist’ makes perfect sense; the term ‘white patriot’ is an oxymoron.” But how should we understand the gratuitous display of patriotic regalia at the Capitol on January 6? And what sense should we make of the “patriot movement” of the last few decades, and the burgeoning organization of right-wing militias closely affiliated with white supremacist politics? Should the Ku Klux Klan’s successful positioning of itself as the vanguard of patriotic culture at the height of its influence in the early twentieth century inform our understanding? Or, shifting from history to rhetoric, how should we grapple with the successful deployment, from the antebellum era to the present, of the discourse of freedom, liberty, and Constitutionalism—keystone ideals in any story of American exceptionalism—by opponents of racial equality? These lines of inquiry undercut the political rationale for returning to patriotism; they muddy any clear distinction between patriotism and nationalism.

A Mystic’s Chords of Memory

It is long past time, then, to deflate the parade float version of Lincoln that looms over every Thanksgiving and Independence Day. The crux of Smith’s case for Lincoln as a principled or “enlightened” patriot who avoids appeal to nationhood is Lincoln’s differentiation from political rival Stephen Douglas on the question of the expansion of slavery in the late 1850s. Douglas took the position that slavery should be decided by popular sovereignty and majoritarian politics: free white people in the states and territories would decide whether to allow slavery. Influenced by free labor interests, Lincoln’s position was to oppose the expansion of slavery to new states and territories, contradicting Douglas’s appeal to the exclusionary and nationalist sentiment of white populism. Smith quotes Lincoln at his most eloquent: “As I would not be a slave, so I would not be a master. This expresses my idea of democracy. Whatever differs from this, to the extent of the difference, is no democracy.” Lincoln’s patriotism of anti-slavery principle is, for Smith, egalitarian, forward-looking, and inclusive, negating the sordid project of peoplehood, frustrating the cultural will of a white nation.

It is long past time to deflate the parade float version of Lincoln that looms over every Thanksgiving and Independence Day.

To grasp the limitations of Smith’s reading, consider one of Lincoln’s quips in response to Douglas, who was eager to brand Lincoln’s opposition to the expansion of slavery as opening the door to full-on racial equality, playing on cultural and sexual anxieties related to racial miscegenation. “I do not understand that because I do not want a negro woman for a slave I must necessarily want her for a wife,” Lincoln replied. Reports from that Lincoln-Douglas debate indicate Lincoln’s riposte was met with laughter and applause. It was a politically efficacious remark for Lincoln, for it conveyed a distinction between rudimentary political equality and fundamental social worth, nodding to the most visceral fear of white society and ensuring white voters of the perpetuity of white nationhood beyond the abolition of slavery. This is a central leitmotif of Lincoln’s political oratory; he was adept at airing a patriotism of political ideas while at the same time countenancing the cultural dimensions of American nationhood, singing the praises of political egalitarianism while affirming the legitimacy of existing social hierarchies. Smith doesn’t detect this duality and therefore concludes that Lincoln represents a pronounced departure from nationalism, lighting our way to a benevolent patriotism.

Through 1862, Lincoln remained a steadfast supporter of the colonization of African American slaves to Africa to preserve a white American nation. He increasingly felt colonization impracticable, however. In an 1854 speech, Lincoln notes this impracticality before directly addressing the question of racial equality:

What then? Free them, and make them politically and socially, our equals? My own feelings will not admit of this; and if mine would, we well know that those of the great mass of white people will not. Whether this feeling accords with justice and sound judgment, is not the sole question, if indeed, it is any part of it. A universal feeling, whether well or ill-founded, cannot be safely disregarded. We cannot, then, make them equals.

Here Lincoln again distinguishes between political and social equality, deferring to the popular will of white nationhood on the social question. Even where Smith is sure Lincoln’s exclusively civic or enlightened patriotism shines most pristinely, the textual evidence is quite a bit grimier. Lincoln issued a critiquWhite supremacy is not the natural order of the world, abolitionists said, and neither is patriotism.e of the infamous Dred Scott v. Sandford Supreme Court decision of 1857, denying African Americans the rights of citizenship. “I think the authors of that notable instrument [the Declaration of Independence] intended to include all men,” Lincoln wrote,

But they did not intend to declare all men equal in all respects. They did not mean to say all were equal in color, size, intellect, moral developments, or social capacity. They defined with tolerable distinctness, in what respects they did consider all men created equal—equal in “certain inalienable rights, among which are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”

Lincoln’s most patriotic oratory blunts Smith’s paradigm of enlightened patriotism, often melding patriotic metaphor and nationalist sentiment. In the First Inaugural Address of 1861, for example, Lincoln made an overture to the South, throwing his support behind a proposed amendment to the Constitution that would have made slavery permanent there:

We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained it must not break our bonds of affection. The mystic chords of memory, stretching from every battlefield and patriot grave to every living heart and hearthstone all over this broad land, will yet swell the chorus of the Union, when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.

A master of the homiletics of American exceptionalism, Lincoln beseeches us to give him some of that old-time civil religion. His appeal to those extant “mystic chords of memory” was less a description of American exceptionalism than a fabled assertion of exceptionalism in a moment of national turmoil, an attempt to fashion what didn’t exist. It turns out that the patriotism reclamation narrative predates the postwar period—Lincoln was its first practitioner. The reclamation narrative found its first challenge in Lincoln’s era, too. Today we remember the abolitionists as radicals on behalf of racial equality. But their radicalism is also owed to their civic irreverence. White supremacy is not the natural order of the world, abolitionists said, and neither is patriotism.

American Euphemism

Smith anticipates charges of anti-intellectualism in Reclaiming Patriotism and is at pains to grant a certain highbrow cachet to the patriotic philosopher, characterizing Americans as uniquely self-reflective and insisting on a “textual dimension” to American patriotism. Presumably, Smith’s philosopher king interprets the meaning of founding documents for a nation eager to revel in textual nuance—Puritan speeches, the Declaration of Independence, the U.S. Constitution, The Federalist Papers. But in practice, the dominance of biblical literalism, and its political cousin, Constitutional originalism, America’s twin iterations of textual fundamentalism—asserting the idea that texts have a fixed meaning—means Smith’s “textual dimension” takes the form of attesting to a covenant. Alas, we are back at civil religion.

Today we remember the abolitionists as radicals on behalf of racial equality. But their radicalism is also owed to their civic irreverence.

The idea of civil religion originates with Jean-Jacques Rousseau in The Social Contract, written in 1762. “There is,” Rousseau wrote, “a purely civil profession of faith, the articles of which it belongs to the sovereign to establish, not exactly as dogmas of religion, but as sentiments of sociability, without which it is impossible to be a good citizen or a faithful subject.” Smith eagerly disavows Rousseau, marshalling Lincoln as the anti-Rousseau, the enlightened patriot. But Lincoln’s evocations of American civil religion in the First and Second Inaugural Addresses are in fact all footnotes to Rousseau. The anti-intellectual thrust of civil religion can be gleaned from Rousseau’s 1750 essay, “Discourse on the Sciences and the Arts,” a critique of the Enlightenment’s impact on social and political mores. Of the philosophes, Rousseau wrote, “They smile contemptuously at such old-fashioned words as homeland and religion, and dedicate their talents and their philosophy to destroying and degrading all that is sacred among men.” Should they have their way, “National hatreds will die out, but so will love of country,” Rousseau added in a characteristic epigram that combines nationalism and patriotism.

No political construct, however, co-opts all alternatives—not even the Rousseauean modern nation-state can claim this. There are roads open to us, both intellectual and political, other than those charted by the patriotic brain trust. Perhaps we can return to Orwell for one of them. Not the Orwell of “Notes on Nationalism,” but the Orwell of “Politics and the English Language” instead. There, Orwell notices a relationship between the nebulous, ideological dimensions of political language and the exercise of power; the more abstract our language, the easier to legitimize or look past power and practices few would countenance if rendered in concrete terms. “In our time,” Orwell wrote in 1946, “political speech and writing are largely the defence of the indefensible . . . political language has to consist largely of euphemism, question-begging and sheer cloudy vagueness.” Patriotism is America’s chief euphemism in Orwell’s sense.

William Lloyd Garrison was not a public intellectual. The immediate abolitionist was America’s premier counter-patriot. Along with Henry David Thoreau, Garrison burned the Constitution on July 4, 1854, in Framingham, Massachusetts. “NO UNION WITH SLAVEHOLDERS, either religious or political” was Garrison’s mantra. He understood the U.S. Constitution as a mythic document, sustaining slavery because of the discourse of American exceptionalism that attaches to it. Anticipating Orwell’s insight on euphemistic language, Garrison, with mordant humor, gave concrete meaning to patriotism for the purpose of undermining it:

A sacred compact! a sacred compact! . . . We pledge to you our physical strength, by the sacredness of the national compact—a compact by which we have enabled you already to plunder, persecute, and destroy two millions of slaves, who now lie beneath the sod; and by which we now give you the same piratical license to prey upon a much larger number of victims and all their posterity. Go on—and by this sacred instrument, the Constitution of the United States, dripping as it is with human blood, we solemnly pledge you our lives, our fortunes, and our sacred honor, that we will stand by you to the last.

There is no clean-cut patriotism to be reclaimed or redeemed, but fortunately we don’t have to wait for public intellectuals to come to that realization. We can turn instead to America’s tradition of radical social movements, beginning with the abolitionists, for whom nothing is sacred, and apostasy is a civic virtue.