US patriotism

I once went to one of David Starkey’s lectures in which he claimed that the Church of England was developed not to worship God but England, and compared it to Japanese Shinto. I don’t think that’s now the case, and I’m not well up enough on Reformation history to be sure how valid the point was then, but after a few days in the US for the first time, I am coming to think that what the USA worships is more a religion of America than Christianity.
The idea that the US isn’t ‘really’ Christian, despite the vast majority of its population saying that they are, is explored in an interesting article by Bill McKibben (Extract at The Christian Paradox ). Before talking about America-worship, I’d better say that I am not anti-American (I’m having a great time staying in North Carolina with my American relatives) and that I’m not necessarily opposed to patriotism. (The best quote on patriotism I know is an American one: ‘My country, right or wrong; if right, to be kept right; and if wrong, to be set right!’ (said by Carl Schurz in 1872, about whom I otherwise know nothing). What I am struck by, coming from England (and having also visited Canada) is the many, often minor ways, in which America and its symbols are routinely celebrated and even fetishised in ways that seem bizarre if not ridiculous. For example:

The Raleigh News and Observer was today reporting local schools’ involvement in the ‘National Anthem Project’ ( This is a ‘campaign to get America singing “The Star-Spangled Banner” while spotlighting the important role music education plays in giving Americans our patriotic voice.’ You could also buy a CD which ‘includes 15 stirring musical selections that build pride while enhancing the knowledge of America’s special place in history.’ At the college football game we went to, the National Anthem was played and sung before the match: this would normally be done only before an international football match in the UK.

A few days before, the paper had published the first part of a nine-part guide for children to the American Constitution. I can imagine a UK newspaper printing an educational guide to the House of Parliament (the most tangible bit of an otherwise unwritten constitution), but not that much.

All this does show more of an interest in the nation’s history than the UK still has. The problem is when such ideas move onto a more fundamentalist level. An article in the Raleigh News and Observer, arguing for more use of biofuels, recommends the use of E10 fuel so that consumers can ‘know that at least 10 percent of the money is helping to ensure the future of a Midwest farmer, not a Middle Eastern sheik’. Maybe patriotism can help combat global warming, but it seems an odd conjunction in an otherwise largely popular science article. There’s the same economic fundamentalism: I’ve seen several articles in the US papers saying how much better high fuel prices after Hurricane Katrina are than any attempts to ration fuel (which haven’t even been suggested). This completely ignores the fact that higher prices disproportionately affect the poor (as some letters pointed out).

At a local bookstore I started to see the paranoid, if not deranged side of such US-worship. Someone felt the need to publish the ‘Anti-Chomsky reader’, so dangerous was one (I suspect not that well-known) American leftist. (I am still trying to think of who in Britain might possibly consider it worth writing the Anti-Pilger reader, or the Anti-Pinter reader or the Anti-Tariq-Ali reader). Is it worth it? And then I got to Kenneth R. Timmerman, The French Betrayal of America. What?! This is apparently a complaint about French opposition to the Iraq war. But even if you deplore the French position in what sense is it a betrayal? And there are several more books on about French ‘betrayal’ of the USA. These are all presumably be authors who would deplore any restriction on US self-interest dictating policy: what’s wrong with French self-interest?

I’d better stop now before this post gets too long, or may be seen as too anti-American. Again, I’m against some current policies of the USA and some of its cultural beliefs, but I am not anti-American and I know many Americans are also speaking out on the things I’m discussing. If I feel depressed about the USA, it’s because I would like it (as the most powerful nation of the world) to be a beacon for the rights: equality, respect for human rights, democracy, Christianity, that it claims so loudly.


One thought on “US patriotism

  1. It seems to me that edges between fundamental Christianity in America and the notion of “Americanism”, as “religions” have become very blurred, if not complete submerged in each other.
    It is not anti-American to say so. Nor do I feel that way, but I do feel that the nation has been hijacked by an ideal that is being exploited mercilessly by powerful people for political and commercial ends.


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