This nation started with a bang. It began with fighting words and we celebrate its birth every year with fireworks.
The Declaration of Independence, as it was soon known, laid down a brave vision for the United States. We were unified by the guiding principle that life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness were the rights of all people under God, and that a new country would be formed first and foremost to protect those rights.
We went to war for those ideals, throwing off a monarchy that believed it was the purveyor of God’s divine will. We wrestled with how those rights should be interpreted in law and in government. Our forefathers went to great lengths to create a system that could be sustained and secured, even as competing interests would try to take it away or bend it to their will.
As we look back now — 242 years into this democratic experiment — it’s amazing to see how much has worked. Our Constitution remains a garrison against government overreach and our checks and balances in the courts and the Congress have kept tyranny at bay.
It has failed on other fronts, historically, as we trampled or outright ignored the rights of marginalized people who stood in the way of those in power. And every day it is threatened by those who think the country is theirs, singularly, rather than ours, collectively.
But the reason it has worked as well as it has is because of patriots who have put the good of the country ahead of themselves, even so far as laying down their lives and personal freedoms to protect it. They have shown with words and actions why this country’s ideals are worth defending.
That’s what patriotism does. It believes in the greater good of what the country stands for, and not merely the symbols that come along with it.
Nationalism, its dark cousin, demands homage to those symbols without respect for their underlying foundation — and it harbors suspicion and spite against those who understand those symbols differently.
Patriotism’s power comes from a love of country and its people and ideals, while nationalism’s power comes from a fear and hatred of the outside world.
Patriotism accepts past mistakes in hopes of building a better future. Nationalism ignores flaws, both past and present.
Patriotism inspires service to the country. Nationalism demands for allegiance to it.
Patriotism is more difficult. It is not merely waving a flag or reciting a pledge. It requires earnest attention, reflection and action. It requires good-faith debate about how our ideals should be practiced, and at the same time camaraderie in building a better country. It doesn’t allow minor differences to separate the greater unity and progress.
And true patriotism should always be on guard for the creep of nationalism, so the two will still be distinguishable in years to come.