Magazine article First Things; A Monthly Journal of Religion and Public Life

And There's Another Country

Magazine article First Things; A Monthly Journal of Religion and Public Life

And There's Another Country

Article excerpt

And There's Another Country What So Proudly We Hail: The American Soul in Story, Speech, and Song EDITED BY AMY A. KASS, LEON R. KASS, AND DIANA SCHAUB ISI, 790 PAGES, $35

Writing early in the fifth century A.D. to bolster the spirits of Christians in chaotic political times, St. Augustine asked: "As for this mortal life, which ends after a few days' course, what does it matter under whose rule a man lives, being so soon to die, provided that the rulers do not force him to impious and wicked acts?" Coupling this devaluing of the political with a sharp critique of Roman pride in political rule, Augustine suggested that even the most honest of Roman historians praised Rome too highly. But how could they not, he asked, since they had no other and better city to praise.

Augustine was, however, far too penetrating a thinker not to see that more than this must be said. After all, the peace we so greatly desire and that falls so sweetly on the ear is in part the tranquillity provided by political order. And despite asking "What does it matter under whose rule a man lives?" Augustine was quite capable of distinguishing better from worse political communities. Indeed, while demythologizing the myth of Roman greatness, he was unable to withhold his admiration for ancient Roman greatness (even if motivated, of course, by a sinful love of glory).

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.

Readers of anthologies generally like to quibble with editorial selections, whether of omission or commission. I can, however, find only one selection that I would not have included: General Patton's "Speech to the Third Army" (under "courage and self-sacrifice") on the eve of the Allied invasion of Europe. Vulgarity in a good cause is nonetheless vulgarity, and - making all allowances for the special circumstances and acknowledging the greatness of Patton's generalship - I still cannot find much in this selection to take pride in. …

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