Forced Patriotism Isn't Patriotism

I love my country, but if I thought my country, or its government, were perfect, I wouldn’t be running for congress in the first place. I’m running for office because I believe there are a lot of problems here, and I believe I know what needs to be done to properly address many of them.

This being said, there’s a lot of vitriol and anger today directed toward the NFL and its players for protesting during the National Anthem, and I want to be clear about where I stand on this issue philosophically. None of those players are in danger of being arrested, so this is not a legal issue, but I believe it is an important philosophical issue.


Attached is a selfie I took. (I don’t normally take selfies unless my dogs are involved, but I made an exception here.) As you can see, I have the American Flag tattooed on my arm, twice. The tattoo isn’t very good (life lesson: don’t just go to any tattoo artist if you have a specific idea for a tattoo you want). It’s meant to be the original Betsy Ross American Flag crossed at the staffs with today’s flag, with the meaning being that we can be proud of our country, but we shouldn’t forget the reasons it was founded in the first place.

I honestly hate that I have to point out that I have the Flag tattooed on my person, though, in order to prove that I am a patriot, because I don’t believe patriotism is something you can wear, it’s in your heart. However, as you can see, I do have the Flag tattooed on my body. I also follow the US Flag Code (which many self-described patriots ignore regularly) religiously.

All this being said, I think we all need to take a moment and think this through in regard to these NFL players, or anybody else, protesting the Anthem, or the Flag, or anything else we hold dear. I understand the anger that pops up in our hearts when someone disrespects the flag, but I also want you to understand the danger of this type of thinking.

Dissent against authority, against our government, or against any of the power structures in our country, is what America is all about. Our country is founded on the idea that the rights of man are more important than the president, or the government, or the flag, or even the rule of law. The rights of man are of primary concern.

Rights are the point of this country. So, if we attempt to deny rights to people with whom we disagree, we are the people who are doing wrong by our country. If we attempt to stop people from freely and peacefully expressing themselves because we believe it’s disrespectful to the troops who died to maintain their freedom to do so, we are the people who are disrespecting what those troops died for.

Here’s a quote by a former Supreme Court justice in a ruling regarding exactly this sort of thing back in 1943. I’m going to recite it and explain each point, not because I think you can’t understand it yourself, but because I think it’s important, and I know a few people who have been unable to fully grasp what he’s saying.

“To believe that patriotism will not flourish if patriotic ceremonies are voluntary and spontaneous, instead of a compulsory routine... is to make an unflattering estimate of the appeal of our institutions to free minds.”
What he’s saying: If you think we must force people to take part in patriotic ceremonies, such as standing during the National Anthem or reciting the Pledge of Allegiance, then you’re tacitly admitting that there’s little reason for free-thinking people to participate voluntarily. And that says more about our country than it does those people.

“We can have intellectual individualism and the rich cultural diversities that we owe to exceptional minds only at the price of occasional eccentricity and abnormal attitudes.”
What he’s saying: Much of what makes our country great is the diversity of thought itself. Weirdos who stand outside of what we consider “the norm” are a necessary part of our country.

“When they are so harmless to others or to the State as those we deal with here, the price is not too great.”
What he’s saying: People refusing to stand and recite the Pledge or refusing to stand for the Anthem are not a big deal. These actions harm nobody.

“But freedom to differ is not limited to things that do not matter much. That would be a mere shadow of freedom. The test of its substance is the right to differ as to things that touch the heart of the existing order.”
What he’s saying: If we fancy ourselves to be a free country, it is actually more important to allow people to differ on things that go to the very core of what we know and love about our country. If we only allow people to differ on small things that don’t matter, then we aren’t allowing people freedom to differ at all. We must allow dissent on the most important issues. That’s what determines whether or not this is a free country. Can people criticize police without being harangued? Can people criticize wars? The military? The president? The country itself? If they cannot – whether it’s due to legal ramifications or simply the mob rule of great numbers of people boycotting or yelling down the critics – this is not a free country.

Freedom is often uncomfortable. Freedom means that people will be able to say and do things that we don’t like, and we’ll also be free to say and do things they don’t like. But when what we say and do is simply a negative response to someone else’s free expression, and we use our freedom to deny freedom to another person, we are harming the foundational principle of freedom in our country. Not them. Us.

If we want these players to stop protesting during the Anthem, and to act proud of our country, then we need to try to understand why they’re protesting, and help them address those problems. When we do that, they will once again begin to voluntarily participate in our patriotic displays, because they will want to.

I understand that acknowledging some of the deeply rooted problems in our country is painful. But that’s life. We can either choose to help address these issues, or we can ignore them. If we ignore them, they will persist.

I believe it’s patriotic to criticize our government when it does something wrong. And it’s patriotic to put in the work to make this country stand up to its own example. I believe that "My country, right or wrong" inevitably leads to a lack of the former and an abundance of the latter.

So, instead of hating these athletes or other protesters, let’s listen to them. If we think they’re wrong, we can talk to them about it. And if we agree, we should help them address the problem.

Forced patriotism isn’t patriotism at all.

Steve Cox