According to a well-known aphorism of Samuel Johnson’s, “Patriotism is the last refuge of a scoundrel.” But those were not Dr. Johnson’s only words on the subject. He also contended that a true patriot is actuated by “one single motive, the love of his country.” Thus a patriot ignores his own self-interest and instead “refers everything to the common interest.”
So Dr. Johnson agreed that patriotism—selflessly subordinating personal interest in favor of the collective interests of others—can also be understood as the hallmark of the good citizen. Walter Berns’s brief and highly readable volume elaborates usefully on this second, less cynical Johnsonian understanding of patriotism. It explains how America has fostered patriotism in the past, and—regrettably—why it is no longer very well equipped to do so.
Making Patriots responds to a number of critiques of patriotism that have been launched in recent years. For example, University of Chicago philosophy professor Martha C. Nussbaum has written that the “emphasis on patriotic pride is morally dangerous,” because it implies that our fellow citizens are somehow better and more deserving than the citizens of other countries. Instead, Nussbaum urges, “we should give our first allegiance to no mere form of government, no temporal power, but to the moral community made up by the humanity of all human beings.”
Berns does not reply directly to Nussbaum’s critique, but the answer that he would offer is clear enough. With respect to America, Berns rightly rejects Nussbaum’s dichotomy between narrow, particularistic allegiance to one country and universalistic dedication to all of humanity. Instead, “the unique character of American patriotism” is that it incarnates “the devotion not only to country, but also to its principles.” These principles include the natural equality of man (which requires government to secure the consent of the governed) and the natural right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Based as it is on these principles, “ours is not a parochial patriotism; precisely because it comprises an attachment to principles that are universal, we cannot be indifferent to the welfare of others. To be indifferent, especially to the rights of others, would be un-American.”
That constitutes Berns’s response in the realm of theory. As for the realm of practice, it suffices to note that the human race does not constitute Nussbaum’s “moral community.” Instead, the human race is split up into a multitude of states, many of which are profoundly hostile to the doctrine of human rights. For that reason, Berns notes, “despite all the current talk about globalization,” in the future Americans are likely once again to have to call on patriots to fight for their country.
Making Patriots is composed of a series of essays that examine different aspects of American patriotism. For example, it explores how religious liberty and economic liberty have affected the attempt to foster American patriotism. By separating church from state, America avoided forcing those who professed unorthodox religious beliefs to choose between serving their God and serving their country.
On the other hand, the pursuit of self-interest made possible by economic liberty might seem to conflict with the selfless dedication characteristic of patriots. It is not obvious that self-interested men—who understand themselves to be “naturally endowed not with duties or obligations but with certain unalienable rights”—would willingly sacrifice their lives for their country.
Berns’s analysis of the impact of religious and economic liberty are of considerable interest to the philanthropic community, because it bears on the current dispute over the role of faith-based institutions in healing our social wounds. At first glance, Berns might appear to question the worth of such institutions. Thus he asserts that “America is, in principle, a secular state,” not a Christian state. He also notes that opposition to government support for faith-based institutions has a respectable pedigree: James Madison believed that “any public program in support of religion—support of any kind, and whether of a particular religion or religion in general—was illegitimate.” Finally, Berns suggests that America has promoted economic self-interest because it more effectively reduces poverty than does religious altruism. A society that liberates economic self-interest “will have less need of Samaritans, but there were never many Good Samaritans anyway.”
Significantly, though, Berns claims only that a society such as America will have “less need” of Good Samaritans. But it will not have no need of them, so the impulse to be a Good Samaritan must still be encouraged. Berns indicates that the American Founders understood this and hoped that religious belief would flourish in the private sphere, despite the absence of support for it in the public sphere. The Founders believed that “the religious make better citizens than do the irreligious.” Having been taught “to love their neighbors as they love themselves,” religious believers “are more likely than the irreligious to come to the aid of their fellow citizens in time of need.”
In a speech that he delivered on July 4th of this year, President Bush echoed this link between the Founders’ principles and the work of faith-based charities. “America’s founding documents give us religious liberty in principle; [Americans who work in faith-based institutions] show us religious liberty in action.” Thus the president’s defense of the work of faith-based institutions affirms the time-honored wisdom of the Founders: “We welcome religion in our common life because it leads millions of Americans to serve their neighbor.”
To explain the willingness of self-interested Americans to die on behalf of their country, Berns appeals chiefly to the impact of civic education in the past. “Of greatest importance was the education we received in the public schools; we were taught to love our country even as we were taught reading, writing, and arithmetic.” Specifically, the civics curriculum used to incorporate stories of American patriotic valor, as “a way of inculcating in children a reverence for the past and its heroes, with the view of causing them to love their country.”
But the public schools, unfortunately, no longer do this. The rise of cultural and moral relativism has made it “difficult, if not impossible, for the schools to play a major role in the making of public-spirited citizens. How can the schools teach students to love their country and be prepared to make sacrifices for it, when telling them that its ‘culture’ or form of government is no better than any other country’s?”
Berns’s lament over the increased skepticism regarding the value of America’s political principles—and the problems that such skepticism poses for the making of future American patriots—produces a somewhat melancholy (though clearly important) message. The book might almost have been titled Why We Are No Longer Making Patriots. But despite its sobering conclusion, the book is nevertheless a delight to read.
The central point of Berns’s book—and of his lengthy career teaching American government—is that the Constitution, which has governed America for over 200 years, makes it a country worthy of love. Because it argues that case so impressively and concisely, Making Patriots is a book that is worthy of our admiration.
Joel Schwarz is a contributing editor of Philanthropy and the author of Fighting Povery with Virtue: Moral Reform and America’s Urban Poor, 1825-2000.