In his classic The Four Loves, C.S. Lewis speaks about love of country. He details how patriotism can be a good and healthy sentiment, but it can also turn into idolatry without our realizing.
Lewis understood love of country. He fought and lost friends in World War I. Much of his writing occurs in the shadow of World War II.
The radio talks that eventually became The Four Loves were broadcast in 1958, which is closer to the WWII than we currently are to 9/11.
In that patriotic time, Lewis reminded his readers that not all types of patriotism are created equal. In fact, any love—not only love for country—can turn bad if it becomes prioritized wrongly.
St. John’s saying that God is love has long been balanced in my mind against the remark of a modern author (M. Denis de Rougemont) that ‘love ceases to be a demon only when he ceases to be a god’; which of course can be re-stated in the form ‘begins to be a demon the moment he begins to be a god.’ This balance seems to me an indispensable safeguard. If we ignore it the truth that God is love may slyly come to mean for us the converse, that love is God.
Lewis argues that some patriotism can be good. If we reject it all, he writes, “We cannot keep even Christ’s lament over Jerusalem. He too exhibits love for His country.” So he begins by exploring the weakest, and least likely to be perverted, form of patriotism.
First, there is love of home, of the place we grew up in or the places, perhaps many, which have been our homes; and of all places fairly near these and fairly like them; love of old acquaintances, of familiar sights, sounds and smells.
Of course, patriotism of this kind is not in the least aggressive. It asks only to be let alone. It becomes militant only to protect what it loves. In any mind which has a pennyworth of imagination, it produces a good attitude towards foreigners.
How can I love my home without coming to realize that other men, no less rightly, love theirs? Once you have realized that the Frenchmen like café complet just as we like bacon and eggs why, good luck to them and let them have it. The last thing we want is to make everywhere else just like our own home. It would not be home unless it were different.
This patriotism appreciates the positive features of what makes your country unique. It makes no demand on others, nor does it seek to change the particular aspects of other cultures.
The next step of patriotism is a reflection of the nation’s history. It can have benefits, but Lewis gives warnings to heed.
The second ingredient is a particular attitude to our country’s past. I mean to that past as it lives in popular imagination; the great deeds of our ancestors. … This feeling has not quite such good credentials as the sheer love of home. The actual history of every country is full of shabby and even shameful doings.
What does seem to me poisonous, what breeds a type of patriotism that is pernicious if it lasts but not likely to last long in an educated adult, is the perfectly serious indoctrination of the young in knowably false or biased history—the heroic legend drably disguised as text-book fact. With this creeps in the tacit assumption that other nations have not equally their heroes; perhaps even the belief—surely it is very bad biology—that we can literally “inherit” a tradition.
As the past is viewed through rose-colored glasses, this type of patriotism can drift into superiority—not based on a right understanding of our nation’s actions, but a haze of legend that falsely elevates ourselves.
This can show up when someone speaks about the “good ol’ days” without recognizing if they were good for everyone in the country at that time.
This hagiographic view of the past can gradually become the third type of patriotism, which is even more dangerous.
This third thing is not a sentiment but a belief: a firm, even prosaic belief that our own nation, in sober fact, has long been, and still is markedly superior to all others.
I once ventured to say to an old clergyman who was voicing this sort of patriotism, “But, sir, aren’t we told that every people thinks its own men the bravest and its own women the fairest in the world?” He replied with total gravity he could not have been graver if he had been saying the Creed at the altar “Yes, but in England it’s true.”
To be sure, this conviction had not made my friend (God rest his soul) a villain; only an extremely lovable old ass. It can, however, produce asses that kick and bite. On the lunatic fringe, it may shade off into that popular racialism which Christianity and science equally forbid.
If our nation is really so much better than others it may be held to have either the duties or the rights of a superior being towards them. In the nineteenth century, the English became very conscious of such duties: the “white man’s burden.” What we called natives were our wards and we their self-appointed guardians. … And yet this showed the sense of superiority working at its best. Some nations who have also felt it have stressed the rights, not the duties.
To them, some foreigners were so bad that one had the right to exterminate them. Others, fitted only to be hewers of wood and drawers of water to the chosen people, had better be made to get on with their hewing and drawing. Dogs, know your betters! I am far from suggesting that the two attitudes are on the same level. But both are fatal.
This type of patriotism, as Lewis says, stress the rights of a nation, but not the duties. You claim the power, but not the responsibilities that come with it.
Ignoring the achievements and perspectives of other nations and cultures can lead to a sense of superiority that justifies the mistreatment and exploitation of others.
This leads to the last form of patriotism and, in Lewis’ argument, the most dangerous.
Finally, we reach the stage where patriotism in its demonic form unconsciously denies itself. “No man,” said one of the Greeks, “loves his city because it is great, but because it is his,” A man who really loves his country will love her in her ruin and degeneration “England, with all thy faults, I love thee still.” She will be to him “a poor thing but mine own.” He may think her good and great, when she is not, because he loves her; the delusion is up to a point pardonable.
But Kipling’s soldier reverses it; he loves her because he thinks her good and great loves her on her merits. She is a fine going concern and it gratifies my pride to be in it. How if she ceased to be such? The answer is plainly given: ” ‘Ow quick we’d drop ‘er.” When the ship begins to sink he will leave her.
Thus that kind of patriotism which sets off with the greatest swagger of drums and banners actually sets off on the road that can lead to Vichy. And this is a phenomenon which will meet us again. When the natural loves become lawless they do not merely do harm to other loves; they themselves cease to be the loves they were to be loves at all.
I may without self-righteousness or hypocrisy think it just to defend my house by force against a burglar; but if I start pretending that I blacked his eye purely on moral grounds wholly indifferent to the fact that the house in question was mine I become insufferable.
The pretense that when England’s cause is just we are on England’s side as some neutral Don Quixote might be for that reason alone, is equally spurious. And nonsense draws evil after it. If our country’s cause is the cause of God, wars must be wars of annihilation. A false transcendence is given to things which are very much of this world.
Lewis is not arguing there are no right or wrong sides, but rather those who see their country as only on the right side of morality will never be able to acknowledge a mistake.
When you equate your side to God’s side, then you grant your country an unquestionable status. As Lewis says, if any country has this, they then have the right and even the responsibility to annihilate any and all enemies because they cannot be wrong.
Every act is moral because of the one who did it. Every decision is right because of the one who made it. At this point, patriotism is at its most demonic because the nation has become a god.
No nation is deserving of this type of patriotism, because it has ceased to be patriotism toward a nation and become worship toward a god.
Lewis recognized this truth, in part, because he had lived through two World Wars. He had seen in Germany, Japan, Italy and others the depths to which a nation would descend when they believed they alone were right.
Don’t say, “We would never do that,” as that’s the very nature of pride and only increases the likelihood that you will go down that path.
Americans defended slavery for a century. We embraced racial segregation for decades after that. We continue to defend abortion. We can, we have and we will make mistakes, while simultaneously declaring our righteousness.
This is always a danger for our nation. This is always a danger for us as individuals.