What is a Country?
Scattered thoughts on the 4th of July
I normally try to come up with Substacks for national holidays, feast days, etc. But I was thinking of letting today’s festivities go by without one, because nothing especially brilliant or original was coming to mind. Fortunately, as often happens, someone tweeted something I disagreed with.
In context, there was some discussion about what exactly we’re celebrating when we celebrate Independence Day. My friendly Twitter acquaintance said he found it “surreal” to “go to church to sing dated patriotic songs about virtues of a country that no longer exists.” Why, he asks, are we over here still singing “America the Beautiful,” when it would make more sense to sing about the need for collective repentance? If this is just “an exercise in sentimental affection for the idea of a place,” then “we might as well be singing about Atlantis or Numenor.”
Now, I don’t often disagree with this friendly Twitter acquaintance, because we’re both young curmudgeons in training who lament the same national ills. If America has “national sins,” we would probably agree on what many of those sins might be. We lament the unborn children slaughtered under the regime of Roe vs. Wade. We lament the Biden administration’s jack-booted rainbow fascism. We lament all the blindly arrogant encroachments on individual liberties during the pandemic, and what they signaled about how lightly our governing authorities will value those liberties in our future. So many things. So much to lament.
Why, then, do I disagree with his take on Independence Day? Don’t we agree that in some sense, the country so movingly hymned in “America the Beautiful” really does no longer exist?
Well, yes and no. I suppose it comes down to this question: What is a country?
I remember once finding some old documentary footage about Westboro Baptist Church, featuring a very young Megan Phelps-Roper before her transition out of the cult. Megan herself still comes across as personable and earnest, even in this phase, just very deeply indoctrinated. But I had a very visceral, angry reaction to the rest of the footage as older members of the church justified their work. At one point, Megan’s mother matter-of-factly discusses their practices of flag desecration—holding it upside down, wearing it at their waists. She talks about how her 10-year-old son was once arrested for stepping on it, launching into a disquisition about free speech. “Everyone in the whole country knows that you can not only stand on a flag, you can burn a flag.”
Purely from a First Amendment perspective, she has a point, I guess. But my God, I thought. Picketing fallen soldiers’ funerals with signs saying they aren’t heroes and God hates their country? Singing a vile parody of “America the Beautiful” where you celebrate the 9/11 attacks? On this hill, you plant your upside-down flag?
I should stress that I don’t at all intend to lump my acquaintance in with the Westboro cultists. I believe he genuinely laments the passage of something he genuinely loves. But I don’t hear lament or love from Westboro. Just glib, pig-headed triumphalism. I find my mind returning to them now only because I’m trying to put my finger on what made me so furiously angry, with people who claim to share my same faith, my same values. What was it inside me that wanted to scream “No!” when I heard Megan’s mother talk so casually about desecrating the flag? Why, when I listened to them warbling their bastardized “Oh Beautiful,” did it feel like a violation of something sacred?
What is a country? My memory wanders still further back in search of the answer. It conjures up a dark, rainy day. My family is driving past a gas station, when my dad notices the flag in the mud. He stops the car and dashes out to pick it up. After delivering it to the people inside, he comes back and we drive on. It all happens in a couple of minutes. He says he just couldn’t leave it on the ground in the rain.
A little further back, we’re all gathered with local friends in our piano room to sing hymns, for the first of what will become many “hymn sings.” It’s the fall of 2001, very shortly after 9/11. Someone requests “Oh Beautiful.” We begin singing it, and though I’m too young, my mom and dad and others are finding it difficult to get through the verse about heroes proved in liberating strife, who more than self their country loved, and mercy more than life.
Maybe this is why. Maybe this is what I want to say when the picketers wave their sign saying, “There are no heroes.” Yes, there are. There are. There are soldiers and firemen and policemen. There’s the Texas cop whose bodycam footage of a mass shooting was just released, showing him chase down the killer right after telling two cute little kids to wear their seatbelts.
There are ordinary heroes too. Like Estella, an old Jamaican woman I met sitting on a bench in New York. She told me she used to work at a Baptist hospital before it closed many years ago. She then became an in-home caregiver for the elderly, working until arthritis forced her to live on social security. Her rent was $800 a month. She eked things out with food stamps. “We are one people,” she said to me. “We have to look out for each other. We have to watch each other’s backs.” “You sit here,” she gestured to the bench, “We talk…and that’s it, you know. We are people. We are people. We are one people.”
What is a country? Is it the land? The literal land—the rocks and rills, the Pennsylvania hills where my father grew up, the waves of grain that spring up all around the little rural Michigan high school where I gave my last couple of teaching years? Is it the people? Is it the maintenance guy from Texas who lives upstairs from me and owns multiple guns and would give you the shirt off his back? Is it the old ladies who were making peanut butter jelly sandwiches and chocolate milk with me in a basement church kitchen? Is it the single mom we handed it to?
Yes. It’s the land I love, and it’s the people. All of it. All of them.
I can only speak for myself, but when I sing “America the Beautiful,” I don’t just see it as a sentimental exercise. Look again at the lyrics. “May God thy gold refine.” “God mend thine every flaw.” The patriot dream sees beyond the years. It looks for alabaster cities “undimmed by human tears.” You could say this dream is unfulfillable. Perhaps you would be right. Perhaps it will never be realized, until that day when all tears are wiped away.
But meanwhile, I don’t live in Atlantis, or Numenor. I don’t get choked up at the thought of Atlantian trees changing colors in the fall. I don’t greet Numenoreans walking down the street, going shopping, going to work, chatting with the person in the plane seat next to me who I’ll never meet again.
Don’t be ridiculous, you say. I should know good and well there are Americans who would like nothing better than to curb-stomp me and my rights under a fluttering Pride flag. There are Americans who would spit at me if they saw me holding a pro-life sign. There are Americans whose ideal vision of America is an America without people like me in it. And, well, yes, I do know that, good and well. And frankly, for my part, I think some of them are dangerous too. So dangerous that I’m not at all convinced we can coexist peacefully in the same public square.
What is a country? I understand the question. And I’m not sure exactly what I’m trying to say with this answer. Maybe I don’t fully know. Maybe I’m still working it out. What I can say, what I do know, is that I could never be other than an American. Some people can, but I couldn’t. I wouldn’t know where to begin. I would be lost.
What is my country? For better or worse, it is my home. It is the land I love. It always has been. It always will be.
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