For the past few months, Facebook posts — which often degenerate into a flood of misquotes, rumors, and outright lies that would put supermarket tabloids to shame — have been (daily it seems) laced with increasingly hateful rhetoric about both presidential candidates; the role of religion in our nation; anti-Muslim, anti-law enforcement, and anti-whatever sentiments; and what it means to be a patriotic American.
The latest tempest in a teapot is the decision by a multi-millionaire football player not to stand during the national anthem before a meaningless pre-season football game. His reasoning: As a person of color, he feels the anthem does not represent freedom for all Americans. He has subsequently been invited to apologize, quit his job, leave the country — sooner rather than later. Others have called on his employer to fire his unpatriotic backside.
Some have rallied to his defense, including the National Football League, his own team’s management, and more than a few combat veterans. Their reasoning: Players are encouraged to stand for the national anthem, but aren’t required to.
They are right.
I’m a patriot. I stand for the national anthem and either place my hand over my heart or more likely stand at attention, a habit that was drilled into me during basic training as a member of the Army Reserve. But while I choose to do this, the act itself doesn’t make me a patriot.
I am deeply moved by the symbolism of our flag and the national anthem. But if someone told me I had to stand, had to salute, I would feel less good about it. Such a compulsory tribute would be meaningless. And the freedoms that the song and the flag represent would be diminished.
I would never desecrate an American flag. But making it unlawful to do so violates every principle of liberty that the flag represents.
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I’m a proud American. As a country, we have reason to be proud. But anyone who reads history understands that we are not perfect. We never have been, never will be. That’s the great wonder of democracy — we continually search for a better balance, a better means of fairly representing “We, the people.”
It’s complex, it’s hard. We the people represent a diversity of ethnicities, religious beliefs, and visions. It’s what’s makes us strong. It’s also what creates the incessant friction that befuddles governance and sows discontent among the populace.
We don’t always agree. We aren’t always willing to compromise our positions to achieve something that, in the long run, would benefit others.
We too often mistake pride for patriotism, pomp for significance. Saluting a flag or standing for an anthem doesn’t make one patriotic; conversely, not standing or saluting doesn’t make one unpatriotic.
My inconsequential service in the Army Reserve didn’t make me any more a patriot than someone who graduated from college the same year I did and went straight into teaching, or back to the family farm, or dropped out of high school to work in a coal mine. It was just a part of my particular journey.
I know, as we all do, people who’ve fought in this country’s wars/conflicts. Some of them never came home. In my book, they are true patriots. But at the same time, it’s not for me to judge whether someone else is or isn’t a patriot simply because he or she doesn’t conform to my particular definition of the concept.
Most of us, thank God, will never be asked to risk our lives to protect our freedom. For most of us, the most patriotic things we do are to get up every morning and go to work, pay our fair share of taxes, and vote — all vital to the well-being of this country.
But, if we believe in our constitution and what the national anthem and the American flag stand for, we also must recognize that while we are united, we are also different, and each of us has the right to express patriotism in our own way — especially when we disagree.