Patriotism Begins at Home


As I leave work, I drive up a steep hill. Below me on the right are rooftops. Towering above one is a flagpole that rises a few feet above the street I use. The flagpole sports two flags, the Stars and Stripes and the first Navy jack. The latter has 13 red and white stripes, a stretched-out timber rattlesnake, and the words Don’t Tread on Me.
Sometimes I’m tempted to drive down the hill, find the owner of the flagpole, and puckishly ask him why he flies these flags so prominently. I expect him to answer, “Because I want to show my patriotism.”

“But are you really showing your patriotism—or is it your nationalism?”

“They’re the same thing.”

“No, they’re not. They’re different, and one is good while the other isn’t.”

At this point in my fantasy he guffaws and tells me to get lost.

But it’s a point worth making, particularly as we approach elections and can expect to see a superfluity of flags and bunting. There is a difference between patriotism and nationalism, and it’s one that eludes many Catholics.

Patriotism is the love of one’s native or adopted place, simply for what it is—not because it is “the best in the world” (whatever that means), not because it is the “richest,” not because it is the “most powerful.” All such considerations are irrelevant to patriotism. Someone living in a politically backward country that is poor and that “projects” no power beyond its own borders can be every bit as patriotic as an American. He can love his place and his people as much as Americans love theirs.

We tend to think of patriotism as being only a country-level thing: Someone’s a “patriotic American,” and that’s the end of it. But “patriotism”—which stems from the Latin patria, meaning “fatherland” or “homeland”—starts at home. The virtue of patriotism (and it is a virtue) begins at home and works outward: neighborhood, town, county, state, region, country. You can’t very well say you love the place that is America without first loving particular places within America. It’s as though you say you love Americans in general but not any American in particular.

Patriotism, being a species of love, is a good thing. It needs to be contrasted with nationalism, which arises not out of love but out of pride. We know that pride is a sin—the chief of the Seven Deadlies—but colloquially we use the word pride in positive senses: I have pride in my child’s educational attainments; I have pride in my favorite sports teams; I have pride in what my co-workers accomplish at the office.

The pride that underlies nationalism is not this harmless sort. The nationalist thinks America is “the best,” that Americans are “the best,” that American politics and culture are of universal applicability. His fundamental attitude is not one of gratitude and satisfaction but of expansion and even imposition. There is no room for foreigners to be equally nationalistic because their countries and their people are not “the best.” They are inferior in history or constitution or military power or table manners.

Woodrow Wilson said, “The world must be made safe for democracy”—another way of saying, “The world needs to be remade in our own image, even if this remaking needs to be imposed upon it.” In its extreme form, this idea inspired Napoleon and Hitler and Stalin, each of whom, out of ideology mixed with nationalism, sought to remake the world. In its mild form, this idea is still subversive. This should not surprise a Catholic. Just as pride differs from love, so nationalism differs from patriotism. Just as a Catholic should avoid pride and foster love, so he should avoid nationalism and foster patriotism.


Karl Keating is founder and president of Catholic Answers, the country’s largest apologetics and evangelization organization. He is the author of five books, including Catholicism and Fundamentalism and What Catholics Really Believe.

This article appeared in Volume 21 Number 5.