Whatever happened to patriotism? Recent Gallup polls reveal that Americans are feeling less patriotic nowadays.
Last summer, for the first time in the 18 years Gallup has conducted the poll, fewer than half of U.S. adults – just 47 percent – said they are “extremely proud” to be American. That was a 4 percent drop from 2017 and a marked decrease from the 70 percent figure seen in 2003.
Among younger Americans, patriotism seems even weaker. A Pew Research report a few years back found that fewer than half of U.S. millennials – those born between 1981 and 1996 – would describe themselves as “a patriotic person” at all. And a 2018 YouGov survey found that 46 percent of U.S. young adults ages 14 to 37 did not believe that America is “the greatest country in the world.”
“The millennial generation has earned plenty of labels,” said Gabrielle Bosché, a millennial strategist and author of the 2017 book 5 Millennial Myths. “Patriotic certainly isn’t one of them.”
That perceived lack of love for country has some observers concerned. In a commentary reflecting on the 75th anniversary of the D-Day invasion earlier this year, Heritage Foundation senior legal fellow Hans von Spakovsky wondered: “Would today’s millennials meet the same challenge if faced with a future war, one in which the U.S. and its allies were attacked?”
Meaning of patriotism
Yet patriotism means different things to different people. All agree it means love of country, but how much can one disagree with a nation’s laws, government, and leadership and still be considered patriotic?
Although a nation founded upon democratic principles and individual liberties must allow for a “loyal dissent,” gestures such as athletes “taking a knee” during the National Anthem are seen by many as disrespecting the flag and those who defend it. On the other hand, those who show zealous, uncritical support for our country to the point of carving out a “love it or leave it” position are sometimes accused of expressing not patriotism, but rather nationalism.
Nevertheless, “That some have exhibited extremes of patriotism does not remove the truth that patriotism is a virtue and is both commended to us and commanded of us,” writes Monsignor Charles Pope, a pastor in Washington, D.C., and a popular blogger.
The Catechism of the Catholic Church affirms the virtue of patriotism, relating it to the Fourth Commandment call to honor one’s father and mother. “It is the duty of citizens to contribute along with the civil authorities to the good of society in a spirit of truth, justice, solidarity, and freedom,” it reads. “The love and service of one’s country follow from the duty of gratitude and belong to the order of charity. Submission to legitimate authorities and service of the common good require citizens to fulfill their roles in the life of the political community.” (#2239)
That concern for the common good necessarily extends beyond one’s own national borders, however, or risks sliding toward an unhealthy nationalism. As Pope St. John Paul II said in an address to the United Nations in 1995, “True patriotism never seeks to advance the wellbeing of one’s own nation at the expense of others. …
Nationalism, particularly in its most radical forms, is thus the antithesis of true patriotism, and today we must ensure that extreme nationalism does not continue to give rise to new forms of the aberrations of totalitarianism.”
How, then, do we instill true patriotism among young Americans?
Some educators debate whether patriotism should be taught at all. Many elementary and high schools across the country today do not recite the Pledge of Allegiance. In those that do, students are not required to participate. History textbooks present more varied perspectives than they once did. Patriotism, or at least its public expression, is not being taught or practiced as perhaps it was years ago.
Meanwhile, President Trump has called for changes to public-school curricula with the intention of “promoting American pride and patriotism in America’s schools.” Such an initiative likely would involve not only saluting the flag, but also fostering American pride through lessons in history and civics, even if the shadows of history and the controversies of today are taught along with the principles of a democratic republic and the stories of America’s national heroes.
While those at other points on the political spectrum might not endorse such an educational directive, many still understand the need to rouse a patriotic spirit – however it may be defined – among the U.S. citizenry. “One of the core lessons of Trumpian politics is that Americans are starved for a meaningful politics of what it means to be American,” said political author Jefferson Cowie in a New York Times essay a year ago.
Even Rahm Emanuel, the Democratic former mayor of Chicago, acknowledges the need to start with the younger generation. He has called for a restoration of patriotism in our youth through mandatory national service such that all 18-year-olds who do not join the military must volunteer for six months with the Peace Corps or another service organization. “[A] universal national service program will tap into younger Americans’ desire to serve the greater good,” Emanuel explained in an April 2019 essay in The Atlantic.
Millennials and the future
Amid the alarming polls, there is reason for hope.
Bosché, the millennial researcher, understands why younger Americans don’t sound as patriotic as their elders: they tend to be more independent in their thinking. They hear more discussions involving concerns over privilege and access, inequities in income and opportunity, and broader perspectives on global issues, and are less inclined to take the “my country, right or wrong” approach of generations past. Still, she sees this social awareness as a strength that can benefit America. “In truth, I believe millennials are more equipped to change the world than our predecessors were at our age,” she said.
Bosché said she knows many young people who consider reciting the Pledge “a privilege” rather than a duty
“Not all millennials have lost respect for our country,” she emphasized.
GERALD KORSON is a Legatus magazine staff writer.