Is it possible to love something that is imperfect? Naturally, it is. We trust that God loves us, despite our flaws. We love our children, even when they behave in ways we dislike. Love is not contingent upon perfection. In fact, when it comes to things we love, we strive to improve them, to move them closer to more perfect, with the understanding we may never reach it.
The same idea applies to the love of one’s country. Earlier this month we celebrated American Independence Day, and I was reminded that here is another area of American life where polarization has afflicted us. Some folks seem to feel that if one is aware of and concerned by our country’s imperfections that they are not patriots, while some others are so concerned by those faults that they have become very critical of the USA. Neither attitude serves a great country well and both of them bother and sadden me.
The words “more perfect” first appear in the Preamble to the United States Constitution. It reads (in the spelling of that time), “We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution….”
The Founders seemed to have understood that although a perfect Union might be unobtainable, a more perfect Union was within their reach and was something to be continuously improved upon. The Founders themselves were not perfect. For all their rhetoric on justice, welfare and the blessings of liberty, those blessings of liberty, including even the right to vote (!) did not apply to women at the time and many human beings were enslaved and enjoyed almost no rights at all.
Does acknowledging these facts mean that we love our country less? Some folks feel that paying attention to what is flawed, ugly and unfortunate in the history of our country is disloyal and means one could not love our country. They wonder, especially when it comes to teaching their children, can we be patriots and critical of our history at the same time?
I think we should ask instead: How can we be patriots if we are not taking a good hard look at what’s wrong and seeking to improve our nation? How can we be patriots if we are not dedicated to ensuring justice, the general welfare and the blessings of liberty for all of our citizens? How can our children learn to make this nation better if they are not taught which wrongs are to be righted?
This is the aim of Critical Race Theory, which has gotten much media attention recently as state legislatures seek to ban these ideas from the classroom. Critics of the theory say teaching (white) children about systemic racism is teaching them to hate their country. But all countries and societies have flaws, and more importantly, attention to past and present flaws is the only way we can work for improvement.
We apply the same practical reasoning to all of our beloved institutions and even our own homes. If there is a crack in the foundation of your house, do you love it less or do you seek to fix it? Naturally, you will repair it, not because you hate the place, but because you love it. Systemic racism is a crack in our nation’s foundation, and true patriotism is demonstrated by advocating for repairs, not in ignoring the crack and insisting that everything is fine.
The United States has never been and never will be a perfect Union; no country is or will ever be. But because we love it, we must continue the work of the Founders in pushing it to be ever more perfect. That more perfect Union begins with acknowledging what is still wrong and who among us is not enjoying justice and the blessings of liberty. I proudly fly Old Glory on July 4 signaling my appreciation for the Great American Experiment as it seeks better and better to, in the words of George Washington, “promote human happiness.”