In chapter two of The Four Loves, C. S. Lewis recalls a conversation with an old clergyman who was maintaining, with patriotic fervor, the superiority of England over all other countries. Lewis ventured a challenge: "But, sir, aren't we told that every people thinks its own men the bravest and its own women the fairest in the world?" The clergyman replied with total gravity (as grave, Lewis says, as if he had been saying the Creed at the altar) "Yes, but in England it's true."
This anecdote seems instructive for our time in the United States as we hear renewed calls for patriotism, demands for forced respect for the flag and an anthem, and insistence that, apparently, America has lost its place in the world as the most powerful nation and must be returned to its former glory.
In confusing, perplexing, and, frankly, scary times like these, it helps me to return to Lewis's voice. While I don't always agree with every idea expressed by Lewis, I can count on him to bring a reasoned and analytical approach to any question--and to do so from a perspective that is thoroughly Christian. One of Lewis's friends called him the most thoroughly converted man he had ever met, so it was impossible for Lewis to examine any realm of life without bringing a theological perspective to bear.
With that, here's a few gems about patriotism I learned from Lewis in my latest reading of The Four Loves.
- First, Lewis thought patriotism a topic worth considering in some detail. In a 24 page chapter on the "Likings and Loves for the Sub-Human" Lewis spends 9 of those pages discussing patriotism.
- Lewis suggests that patriotism is complex and has several elements, pointing out that two very different writers--Kipling and Chesterton--expressed it vigorously.
- Lewis sees clearly both the values and dangers of patriotism. Returning to the story of the patriotic clergyman, we should note that Lewis grants that the clergyman's conviction has not made him a villain, "only an extremely lovable old ass." But he immediately warns that the same conviction (the firm belief that our own nation, in sober fact, has long been, and still is markedly superior to all others) can produce asses that kick and bite. Lewis even notes: "on the lunatic fringe it may shade off into that popular Racialism which Christianity and science equally forbid."
- Lewis notes that this dangerous patriotism is often based on a distorted view of our country's past. Lewis states: "The actual history of every country is full of shabby and even shameful doings," yet the patriot tends to ignore the shameful past, preferring heroic stories which cast the country in the best possible light--in spite of the fact that the glorious past celebrated is open to serious historical criticism. (Think of Trump's recent statement about our ancestors "taming" a continent.) To be fair, Lewis believes it is possible to be strengthened by the image of the past, but warns: "The image becomes dangerous in the precise degree to which it is mistaken, or substituted, for serious and systematic historical study."
- As he does throughout the book, Lewis constantly reminds us that love of country (like all loves) becomes a demon when it becomes a god.
- Lewis reminds us of another danger: "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." As evidence, Lewis cites the colonialism of Great Britain, noting "our habit of talking as if England's motives for acquiring an empire . . . had been mainly altruistic nauseated the world."
- In summary, Lewis takes a balanced view of patriotism. He does not reject it entirely and sees cultural and social value in it. Yet he closes the chapter with some extremely strong statements about the dangers of equating our country's cause with God's, noting "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."
- Finally, Lewis closes the chapter with a bold statement about what can happen when the church mingles patriotism with the transcendent claims of the church and uses them to justify abominable actions.
If ever a book which I am not going to write is written it must be the full confession by Christendom of Christendom's specific contribution to the sum of human cruelty and treachery. Large areas of 'the World' will not hear us till we have publicly disowned much of our past. Why should they? We have shouted the name of Christ and enacted the service of Moloch.
Now this is not a quote from Lewis that I've seen made into a meme and posted on Facebook! But perhaps it should be. I hope Lewis's reasoned, common sense approach and Christian worldview can help us navigate the troubled waters we find ourselves in today. Lewis, of course, is not writing about the American situation, but his definitions and warnings seem more relevant every day.
Happy Independence Day!