The Public Humanist

Patriotism as Civil Religion

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In an earlier post I discussed the widespread patriotism among America’s poorest citizens. Despite facing very difficult life situations, most not only love America but also believe in its superiority. They hold the country in the highest esteem and view it as unique among the nations of the world. Precisely because so much in their lives has not worked out, they hold tight to the promise of America. They derive dignity from being American, feel good belonging to a rich country, and believe that this is indeed the land of freedom. Not all poor Americans feel this way, of course, as I discussed in a second post, but pride in America is the dominant perspective. Both pieces drew from in-depth interviews I conducted in Montana and Alabama and the resulting book, Broke and Patriotic: Why Poor Americans Love Their Country (Stanford University Press 2018).

However, my findings raised more questions than they answered. I’ll go over two issues here.

Poor Europeans vs. Poor Americans

The first issue concerns the lower levels of patriotism in Europe. As with the United States, there exists little scholarship on the patriotic sentiments of Europe’s worst-off. Yet an initial analysis of data from the World Values Survey (2005-09 and 2010-14) suggests that, when compared to most large European countries and to Europe as a whole, America’s poor express more national pride than their counterparts elsewhere. For instance, across the polled European countries in 2010-14, on average 45% of lower class respondents reported feeling ‘very proud’ of their nationality. The figure for the United States was 55%. We could expand this comparison to include all OECD countries polled and still observe poor Americans as being more patriotic than the average for all those countries.

Poor Europeans, then, do not think as highly of their countries as poor Americans do of theirs. This is so even when they receive more government benefits and have brighter prospects than their American counterparts. Why is this the case? And what does this say about America? Should we settle with the narratives that my respondents articulated? Perhaps America is indeed so exceptional that it can, objectively speaking, play a dominant role in one’s consciousness and provide its citizens with unparalleled psychological support. But for this to be a defensible explanation we would need to believe that countries like France, the UK, or Italy are somehow ‘less great’ or unable, despite their greatness, to connect with their citizens. This might be the case, but demonstrating it empirically is difficult to do.

An alternative and more promising possibility is that poor Americans need, for their hopes and sense of self to remain alive, to feel good about their nation. And this is because, as many social scientists have observed, patriotism is America’s civil religion. It serves as the glue holding an otherwise geographically widespread, culturally young, and ethnically diverse society together. Pledges of allegiance in schools, national anthems at sporting events, and flags outside countless homes: displays and affirmations of patriotism are woven into the fabric of everyday life in the country. It therefore makes sense that, as they struggle, America’s worst-off turn instinctively to the one thing that has historically and culturally provided them with a sense of belonging, purpose, and identity—even superiority. They celebrate it, think it their lifeline, and refuse to give it up. At most, they may denounce their government, but not their nation.

The situation for poor Europeans is different. Longer histories and older cultures pre-date their nations (as is the case with Native Americans in the U.S.); regional identities are often strong; and life unfolds—and has been unfolding—in extended family networks and in the same localities for generations. All these can serve the same function as patriotism does in America: as vital reference points and sources of hope. It is in this regard interesting, and unsurprising, to note that wealthier Americans are also more patriotic than their counterparts in most other advanced nations.

False consciousness

The second question concerns inequality. A steadfast commitment to the nation necessarily translates into an acceptance of its social contract; the two are fundamentally the same. It follows that America’s poor are unlikely to seek major changes to the social system as long as they believe in its legitimacy and goodness. They are very likely to blame themselves for their situations, despite in many cases having experienced terrible conditions very early on in their lives; they do not question the order of things. This further condemns them, and their children, to lives of poverty. One need not be a Marxist to sense elements of ‘false consciousness’ in this: that is, of an attachment to ideas that keep those holding them in their undesirable places in society. Hence, even when directly nudged by me, nearly all the respondents simply refused to believe that things could be better elsewhere. They felt that they live in the promised land, and that with just more effort, and perhaps some luck, their fortunes could change.

This might very well be a powerful mechanism for the reproduction of inequality. Perhaps American patriotism serves as the opium of the masses. Several readers of my book have contacted me to assert as much. If correct, this assessment calls for a re-evaluation of our national creeds, educational approaches, and taken-for-granted practices—no small task considering the centrality of those things to Americans’ sense of self.

On the other hand, such an assessment can be seen as condescending: it assumes that America’s poor are incompetent and limited in their understanding. In fact, my discussions with the respondents suggested something other than false consciousness was at work: many were intelligent, knowledgeable about American history, and enormously courageous in feeling that any change in their lives should start from themselves. These were inspiring conversations that led me to admire many of the people I met. In a way, I sensed in them the strength of the American spirit of determination and optimism. Rather than simply being deluded, many came across as strong and hopeful. Reality is complex, and the glass, in this case, I felt in the end, is both half empty and half full.

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