American exceptionalism: Loyalty to a Constitution

An American patriot is one who will uphold, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic.

This is in the oath sworn by members of the armed forces when they are inducted, the oath sworn by federal officers, including the President of the United States, when they take office, and the oath sworn by immigrants when they are naturalized as citizens.

      Our form of patriotism does not consist of loyalty to a king, or a dictator, or a ruling political party, nor to a race, religion or cultural tradition.  It is rather loyalty to a set of rules for living together, governing ourselves and respecting each others’ rights.

This is why the name of the Department of Homeland Security seems vaguely wrong to many of us.   The word “homeland” expresses the European concept of nationality—that a nation consists of people speaking the same language, living in the same place that their ancestors have lived for centuries.   North America is the homeland of the American Indians.  All the rest of us have come from a homeland somewhere else.

American constitutional patriotism is better than European blood-and-soil nationalism.  Making race, language and ethnicity the basis of national identity is very natural, but it has led to bloody wars, ethnic cleansings and second-class citizenship.

You can be born anywhere in the world and think of becoming an American.  I don’t think anyone thinks this way of becoming German or Japanese or any of the other nationalities defined by ethnicity.

We Americans have had and still have a lot of problems with immigration, but I think we do better than most nations because we make loyalty to the Constitution the basis of patriotism.   I have a good friend born in Uzbekistan who is a naturalized American citizen.   She is as good an American as I am, and as good an American as my immigrant ancestor, Johann Ebersole, who served in the Continental Army under George Washington.

Constitutional patriotism is a more difficult form of patriotism than loyalty to an ethnic group.  Nobody has any problem knowing what a Russian is, or a Japanese or a German.  But the United States is, in the words of Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address, a nation “dedicated to a proposition,”  and throughout American history, Americans have argued about just what that proposition is.  A lot of political debate in the United States consists of Americans accusing each other of being un-American.  I never heard of Canadians or French accusing each other of being un-Canadian or un-French.

The only other contemporary nation that was dedicated to a proposition was the old Soviet Union.  The USSR started to fall apart when its diverse peoples came to realize that Communism could not work and ceased to believe in it.   If the day comes when we Americans cease to be loyal to our constitutional form of government and no longer try to make it work, then we, too, will lose our basis of unity as a nation.

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