And There’s Another Country

Gilbert Meilaender, First Things, October 2011.


It is both natural and right that human beings love the country that has nurtured them. God binds our hearts to particular places and people, and there are few things sadder than one who is simply a citizen of the world, feeling no particular loyalties. It is also natural and right that citizens should, in moments of danger to their shared way of life, be willing to sacrifice themselves for the well-being of the political community. Any Christian instructed by Augustine will need to set limits to—and tell a complicated story about—political loyalty, and I will return eventually to those complications. But if we feel no such loyalty it will not be because we have risen above our common humanity but because we have sunk beneath it.

What So Proudly We Hail is, therefore, a welcome achievement—rich and multilayered in ways that a treatise on patriotism could not be. It continually invites reflection on the nature of “America the Beautiful” and the difficulties of founding and sustaining a political community that, at least sometimes, also aims to be, in John Winthtrop’s words (which, it is important to note, are first of all Jesus’ words in the Sermon on the Mount), “a city upon a hill.” One senses that this volume is for its editors not so much a scholarly project as a labor of love.

The collection of readings by American authors includes speeches, documents, letters, stories, and songs. These are gathered thematically under six main headings—national identity; the American creed; the American character; toward a more robust citizenry: the virtues of civic life; the goals of civic life; and making one out of many. The fourth and by far the longest of these headings (on the virtues of civic life) is itself divided into five sections treating: self-command and self-respect; law-abidingness and justice; courage and self-sacrifice; civility, tolerance, compassion; and public-spiritedness, charity, reverence. Although most readers are likely to dip in and out at different places, reading the volume from start to finish would provide a strong sense of its coherence.

First Things