Interview with Walter Berns

Peter and Helen Evans, RenewAmerica, August 4, 2004.


Helen: Let’s talk about your book, Making Patriots. What do you think the alternative to waving the flag at our Independence Day celebrations would be for that person? In your book you speak about various cultures having different allegiances. For example, it was very simple for the Spartans of old.

Mr. Berns: I’ll use the example of Yale where I taught for a while. In the yard is a statue of Nathan Hale and inscribed on it is the motto, “For God, for Country and For Yale.” Two of those things the Spartans didn’t have: God and Yale. Each city-state had it’s own God and there was no difference between religious allegiance and country allegiance. We make that distinction as a matter of principle in America. So it is possible to be a conflict between the two and we’ve always known that and we’ve always known that. During the first Congress there was a discussion whether there should be an exemption from military service for the pacifist sects, such as the Quakers, the Mennonites and the Schwenkfelders.

Now, there wasn’t a problem with allegiance in Sparta, but there was in Athens. The Athenians had an intellectual life and, as you know, Socrates was executed for allegedly corrupting the youth. There is always a possibility that what you learn in Sunday school, what you’re taught at home and what you learn in university will conflict. We’ve always had those tensions in this country.

Helen: Do you think those tensions make us greater?

Mr. Berns: What they do is they affect our patriotism. They prevent it from being a blind patriotism, along the lines of, “this country right or wrong” sort of thinking. There is something to be said for intelligent patriotism. To illustrate that point I quote Lincoln in his eulogy on Henry Clay: Lincoln said Clay was a patriot who “loved his country partly because it was his own country, but mostly because it was a free country; and he burned with a zeal for its advancement, prosperity and glory, of human liberty, human right and human nature.” To answer your question, an American patriot is a better patriot than a Spartan who loves his country simply because it’s his country and doesn’t know anything else.

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